A film by Arno Oehri & Oliver Primus
A Music Heritage Production
Release date: June 15, 2018
Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie is a curious film. On the one hand, it’s the only documentary on the late guitarist, and for that reason alone has value. On the other, it’s such a cursory treatment of an immense talent that I would hesitate to recommend it except to the most die-hard fans.
As the delicate strains of “Sad Song” waft through a nocturnal New York City montage, we’re promised an intimate look at an intimate artist—one whose discography on ECM and beyond reads like a film unto itself. And in this regard the directors tick the usual boxes when it comes to a standard biographical portrait. We learn of Abercrombie’s earliest inspirations, listening as a boy to the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard and feeling a fuse ignited within by the electric guitar. After convincing his parents to buy him one, he finds himself smitten by its possibilities. “This was my salvation,” he says of the instrument as a divining rod for discovering his path.
He tells us of his parents, who, despite their hesitations, let him study at Berklee College of Music—a rather unusual gesture for the times, as jazz was still an “underground” music. He lived in Boston for eight years, studying for half of them, started gigging, and began attending jazz concerts on a regular basis. His growing reputation earned him walk-in rights to The Jazz Workshop, a prestigious club where all the greats played just feet in front of him. “I thought the mothership had just landed from space,” he says of hearing John Coltrane live for the first time. He still had a lot to learn.
No such documentary would be complete without contributions from those who knew him best. We meet his wife Lisa, who speaks of her husband’s unerring love, as expressed in a willingness to put his music on hold while she finished her schooling in California, and in his acceptance of people as they were. “The deepest part of him is music,” she says, yet in the same breath acknowledges his ability to make everyone feel just as vital to living.
Drummer Adam Nussbaum and keyboardist Gary Versace share their own fond memories of going on the road with Abercrombie. They remember his humor, his practical nature, and the trust he placed in his fellow musicians. Thus, we come to something of a double meaning in the film’s title: his openness was not only musical but also interpersonal. As if to prove that statement, we encounter some wondrous footage of Abercrombie, Nussbaum, and Versace playing “Another Ralph’s” at Jazztage 2014 in Eschen, Liechtenstein. Through 12 minutes of delicate fire, the trio works its magic with ease.
All of which points to the film’s greatest weakness, which should have been its strength: namely, the music itself. Throughout we hear selections from Wait Till You See Her (2009), Within A Song (2012), The Third Quartet (2007), 39 Steps (2013), Class Trip (2004), Current Events (1986), and Timeless (1975). The first thing to notice is that, among this latter-day selection, we don’t hear any music from a 20th-century recording until an hour into the film. Anyone being introduced to Abercrombie’s music through this documentary alone might therefore mistake him for a laid-back picker, as there’s no attempt whatsoever to flesh out his variety, as expressed in such albums as Night (1984), Getting There (1988), and Animato (1989), to say little of the dynamism of Timeless itself. Neither is there discussion of his non-ECM recordings, including his groundbreaking work with Stark Reality and Billy Cobham, in the early 1970s.
Many of these musical selections share a feeling of melancholy, a characterization that fittingly describes his most personal writing and a quality that brought him and ECM producer Manfred Eicher together in the first place. But this is half of his personality at best, by no means the only lens through which to scrutinize his art. A related misstep, for example, concerns his first studio appearance on Barry Miles’s Scatbird (1972), which Abercrombie talks about at some length twice in the documentary. And yet, we don’t hear a lick of it.
We are, however, treated to Abercrombie’s recollections of making Timeless, a record that came about through Eicher’s persistence alone. Under the influence of Indian fusion (by way of John McLaughlin) in vogue at the time, he created a melody over an E-major drone, showed it to keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the rest was history. We learn, too, that Manfred Eicher turned off all the lights in the control room while listening back to “Timeless,” which until then had no title. Abercrombie cites this as the moment his identity as a leader, composer, and performer gelled. Fascinating, to say the least.
While the film has other issues—notably its hesitant editing and filler visuals that take up valuable real estate in time—these are tolerable in light of the fact that so little music is offered. Witnessing Abercrombie at home on the piano, for example, is unabashedly beautiful, but gone too soon.
Open Land is ultimately one of those situations where our love for the subject outweighs our criticism of presentation. But as someone who simply plays what he likes, working with two parts intuition for every part intention, Abercrombie isn’t all that dynamic when it comes to describing his music or process. All of which makes for a lovely piece of apocrypha, to be sure, but far from the best introduction to the man’s life, art, and musical significance. For that, look no further than The First Quartet and its in-depth liner notes by John Kelman, whose laser-focused passion for and knowledge of this music speak to the worth of experience not only for artists but also those who admire their creations.