Given guitarist John Abercrombie’s recent passing, you may be inclined to view Open Land, a film by directors Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus, as something it was never intended to be: an elegiac postscript. Instead, the film comes across as a lyrical portrait, quiet, spacious, reflective, and funny. From the outset, Oehri and Primus distill the soulfulness that marked the late guitarist’s remarkable recording career over the past half-century. As its title makes clear, their film is an introduction, not a summation, yet multiple perspectives add considerable depth, numerous insights, and some touching grace notes.
Amiable and low-key, Abercrombie himself acts as biographer, travel guide and, when the subject briefly turns to composition, instructor. Not the least of the film’s charms is a striking montage of Manhattan skylines, waterways, and neon nightlife. Interspersed are occasional scenes drawn from wintry jaunts to upstate New York and Connecticut, plus a club gig in Liechtenstein with his closely attuned trio mates, organist Gary Versace and drummer Adam Nussbaum.
At one point, Abercrombie describes the aesthetic that ultimately defined his approach to jazz—and laid the foundation for his signature work with producer and ECM label founder Manfred Eicher. Similar tastes cemented their relationship, he says, a mutual appreciation for an elusive sonic blend: “A little melancholy, a little sad, a little not-so-in-your-face, a little mysterious.” Scores of well-regarded sessions featuring Abercrombie as a leader, co-leader, and sideman were the result.
Of course, the film’s soundtrack speaks volumes. From the opening, yes, “Sad Song” to the coda, “Timeless”—the title track of Abercrombie’s 1975 breakthrough recording—the guitarist’s sparse melodies, motifs, and harmonies hold sway. As a composer and improviser, Abercrombie was consistently drawn to emotional lyricism, and in the latter part of his career, he used his right-hand thumb to pluck and strum across the span of six strings, creating an unusually warm and affecting sound. (While the focus here isn’t on technique, even seasoned jazz guitarists may feel the urge to toss their picks after witnessing Abercrombie’s remarkably resourceful thumb up close.)
The film’s most moving episode takes place when Abercrombie visits the site of his old house in Putnam Valley, N.Y., destroyed in a 2003 blaze. He has no problem recalling that nightmare or the engulfing sense of hopelessness he felt at the time. But like its soundtrack, which features live cuts and both familiar and not-so-familiar ECM tracks, Open Land has plenty of tonal shifts.
Delightful anecdotes are sprinkled throughout. Here we find a teenage Abercrombie visiting Manhattan and encountering the John Coltrane Quartet for the first time: “I thought the mothership had landed.” Here he is again, barely old enough to get into a Boston club, astonished to find himself suddenly sharing a joint with Thelonious Monk. And here he is, also in Boston, mesmerized and slack-jawed, seated just a few feet away from his idol Wes Montgomery onstage. If the eight years Abercrombie spent in that city during the ’60s, at Berklee and on the club scene, appear almost magical in retrospect, small wonder.
On the family front, Abercrombie’s father, never one to heap praise on John, always viewed his first recording—a 1968 sideman session with organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith—as his finest hour. Why? “Because it sounded like jazz!” The rest of his output, not so much. Elsewhere, Lisa Abercrombie, John’s wife of 30-plus years (and a fellow musician), offers heartfelt counterpoint: “I’m aware that I come second to John’s music, and it makes so much sense to me. The deepest part of him is music.”
The absence of comments from some prominent collaborators—Ralph Towner, John Scofield, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Andy LaVerne, Marc Copland, Mark Feldman, et al.—may seem a missed opportunity. But then, as his discography illustrates, Abercrombie always preferred intimate, uncluttered productions. In the end, this one suits his artistry and legacy just fine.
See the trailer for Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie below.