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Open Land

Meeting John Abercrombie

by Robin Kidson




John Abercrombie


John Abercrombie, the American jazz guitarist and composer died last year. He was 72. His record label, ECM, has recently released, on DVD, a 90 minute film made by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus. The film’s title, Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie, is both a reference to Abercrombie’s 1999 album, Open Land, and also, perhaps, a reflection of the musician’s open, ego-free personality – open to influences, open to collaboration with other musicians, open to his audience.   

Shot mainly in 2014 and 2015, the film features the amiable and articulate Abercrombie being interviewed in a variety of settings about his life and work. The talking is interspersed with extracts from his various ECM albums together with atmospheric landscape shots. There is an elegiac feel to the film and it is hard not to see it as some sort of obituary although it’s not clear whether Abercrombie saw it as such, nor if he knew he didn’t have that much longer to live. The evidence suggests not – although clearly an older man, Abercrombie comes across as still a vigorous, hard-working (and, it has to be said, hard-smoking) musician looking forward to the future.


Here is the trailer for the film.




John Abercrombie was born in 1944 and brought up mainly in Greenwich, Connecticut. A sequence in the film shows him returning to his childhood home and reminiscing about his time there – “a nice place to grow up”. His first musical tastes inclined to fifties' guitar-based rock and roll and he started having guitar lessons. Friends in high school introduced him to jazz – Brubeck and Miles Davis, in particular. He enrolled at Berklee and began playing clubs in Boston. After graduating in 1967, he toured with the organist, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and appeared on Smith’s 1968 album, Nasty!. He clearly felt an affinity with the sound of the organ because, throughout his career, he often included an organ in his various groupings.


Smith, Abercrombie and drummer, Grady Tate, hitting a groove on Speak Low, one of the tracks on Nasty! Abercrombie’s style at the time clearly owes a lot to the likes of Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery but he is already displaying considerable technical virtuosity.




John Abercrombie



He moved to New York in 1969 and played in the jazz-rock band Dreams and with Billy Cobham. He also became a sought after session musician playing, for example, on that fine piece of jazz-rock, The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays The Music of Jimi Hendrix. But he was a somewhat reluctant jazz-rocker, particularly when he found himself gravitating more to the rock part of that spectrum. He was saved, if that is the right word, by meeting Manfred Eicher, boss of the ECM record label. Eicher invited him to record something on his label and the result was the album, Timeless, released in 1975, on which he was joined by Jan Hammer on keyboards and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The final part of Open Land sees Abercrombie reminiscing about Timeless and how he composed the tracks, particularly the title track which is played on the film.




Listen to Timeless. It owes something to In A Silent Way and, in the film, Abercrombie acknowledges the influence of John McLaughlin. The album sold well. Abercrombie remarks that it was the most successful recording of his career: “It kind of put me on the map. It was my hit”. He became one of ECM’s main artists, remaining remarkably loyal to the record label for the rest of his life. It works the other way of course – Manfred Eicher also stayed loyal to Abercrombie.




Around the same time, John teamed up with DeJohnette and the British bassist, Dave Holland, for a band called Gateway which released two albums on ECM (plus a third reunion album in 1994). The music was mainly free jazz but Abercrombie was finding his own voice which was a more accessible and melodic one. After Gateway broke up, he spent the next 40 years playing in a variety of different settings and developing his own distinctive style – clear, restrained and unflashy but capable of communicating real feeling and emotion. He was always one of the most generous of musicians, blending in with other instruments in an easy and natural way. As well as leading various groups, he also embarked on some notable collaborations with the likes of Ralph Towner, John Surman and Kenny Wheeler.


Here is a video of John with the Kenny Wheeler band playing Hotel Le Hot with Kenny Wheeler (trumpet); John Abercrombie (guitar); John Taylor (piano); Palle Danielsson (bass) and Peter Erskine (drums) (unfortunately the video finishes rather abruptly).




Abercrombie’s restrained style has often been seen as the embodiment of the whole ECM sound and there is a revealing section in the film in which he talks about a melancholic strain to his work and how this fits easily with the ECM “aesthetic” – “a little melancholic, a little sad, not so in your face, a little mysterious”. Indeed, a not unattractive languorous  melancholy pervades a great deal of Open Land. Much of the film seems to have been shot in a North American winter with long-held shots of snowy rural landscapes (open land…), ships and trains moving through, cars on cold nights in the city, clouds…

Abercrombie married his wife, Lisa, in 1986, and a sequence in the film has Lisa talking about how they met and their long marriage. The track, Lisa, from the 1986 album, Current Events (with Marc Johnson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums) is played over this sequence which, as well as showing Lisa, also includes footage of the couple in their cosy and comfortable home complete with cat.


Listen to Lisa






John Abercrombie and Ric McCurdy


Other parts of the film show Abercrombie teaching students at Purchase College, talking to guitar maker, Ric McCurdy, and jamming with other musicians in his home.


John Abercrombie and Ric McCurdy


As a reflection, perhaps, of Abercrombie’s European connections (both with ECM and with European musicians), a longer sequence in the film shows Abercrombie and other members of his current trio (Adam Nussbaum on drums and Gary Versace on organ) flying to Liechtenstein (also cold and wintry) to play a gig. The music playing over this is Banshee, a track from the 2006 album, The Third Quartet, featuring Mark Feldman (violin), Marc Johnson (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). The interplay between Feldman and Abercrombie is particularly impressive and shows the Indian influences which were never far from Abercrombie’s mature style.


Listen to Banshee.




Once in Liechtenstein, the trio plays a relaxed set to an appreciative audience. The film shows them playing the whole of Another Ralph’s, a track from the 2013 album, 39 Steps. It is a gently swinging, funky performance, with any melancholy dial turned right down. Later, over shots of the landscape in Abercrombie’s home in a wintry Putnam Valley, New York, the title track of 39 Steps is played. This fades into Abercrombie playing the tune on piano and explaining something of his compositional technique.


A live performance of 39 Steps with Abercrombie playing with Nussbaum and Versace at the Bologna Jazz Festival.





In his obituary of Abercrombie in The Guardian, John Fordham said of the guitarist:

“His improvisations combined melodic unpredictability and a quietly purposeful momentum, and a typical Abercrombie set would mix unhurried, ruminative drifts into free jazz, elegiac ballads, and a characteristic brand of now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t swing that could be as toe-tappingly infectious as versions that came much more explicitly to the point…his work never retreated into cerebral privacy, since it always retained lyricism, narrative shape and the distant heartbeat of the groove”.

Open Land, Meeting John Abercrombie is a film which captures beautifully the distant heartbeat of John Abercrombie’s particular groove and is a marvellous introduction to the work of a great musician who was often under-estimated throughout a long career. Lovingly made and absorbing to watch, it leaves the viewer wanting to know more about Abercrombie and hear much more of his music. Although the original intention perhaps was not to make a memorial to Abercrombie, the film, nevertheless, is a fitting tribute.

The DVD is available here. You can find further information here.


For those who might like to explore more about John Abercrombie, this one hour video Conversations With John Abercrombie was recorded in 2014 as part of the NYU Steinhardt Jazz Interview Series at SubCulture in New York. with Dr. David Schroeder





Meeting John Abercrombie DVD 


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