This fascinating documentary should be compelling to guitarists and to jazz fans in general.
Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie. A film by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus (ECM DVD). 90 minutes. In English, with German, French and Spanish subtitles.
By Michael Ullman
Filmed not long before the sudden death of its 72 year old subject (on August 22, 2017), Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie tries to live up to its title with its opening shots, taken of an obviously shivering Abercrombie facing the Atlantic Ocean (and incidentally New York City) on what looks like a very blustery day. Amusingly, the guitarist blinks and says, “My eyes are not used to the wind,” before retreating from the director’s set-up. Beautiful as the shots of the ocean are, “open land” turns out to be a metaphor for the way the guitarist approaches music, not for how he, a lifelong suburbanite, faces nature and the world.
Abercrombie was, of course, for a half century one of the most prominent guitarists in jazz, a guiding light (and fixture) at ECM Records. In this documentary he describes his music (and that of many ECM artists) as “a little melancholy, a little sad, a little mysterious.” His colleagues describe him as open to their contributions, or as his wife Lisa puts it: “He is very accepting of what people are.” Laughingly, he talks about the session that produced his first ECM lp: what, he asks incredulously, could he tell Jack DeJohnette about playing drums? The guitarist encouraged his musicians to inhabit the open land as well.
The film gives us Abercrombie genially recounting his life’s story as a musician while visiting such sites as his unremarkable boyhood home in suburban New York. (Besides a lot of “nice” people, the neighborhood housed the inevitable grouch, an old man who never returned the baseballs that somehow ended up in his yard.) In his early teens he listened to what most kids did then: Fats Domino, Little Richard and, more importantly, Chuck Berry. As soon as he heard the sound of Berry’s electric guitar it “got to me,” “did a thing to me.” It’s as if the instrument chose him. Acoustic guitar lessons didn’t take so, after hearing a neighbor play with a little amplifier on his stoop, the teenaged Abercrombie talked his somewhat skeptical parents into buying him an electric guitar. “I was smitten,” he tells his interviewer, it was almost “like ecstasy.”
There quickly was a problem: what he was going to play on his new toy? Jazz, he recalls, was still “a very underground music” at the time, particularly in his sedate neighborhood. Luckily, a hip classmate introduced Abercrombie to the records of bebop guitarist Barney Kessel. He told his teacher that is wanted to play, and the instructor obliged by teaching him some of the tunes, chord by chord. Dave Brubeck was next: he found that it was an easy music to listen to. Soon enough, Abercrombie was in Boston at Berklee College studying jazz guitar. (While the guitarist talks about Berklee and Boston, the film continues to show shots of Manhattan: I guess the budget didn’t include a trip to Boston.)
One of the most amusing parts of the documentary has Abercrombie recounting an early Boston job, at Paul’s Mall on Boylston Street, the sister club to the Jazz Workshop. Abercrombie was hired to entertain between sets at the club: nobody listened. He also played behind singers and anyone else who needed accompaniment. But, when he finished his short set, he got to go into the Jazz Workshop gratis, where he heard Monk, Miles, and Coltrane. “I didn’t know what those people were doing,” he admits. He saw Bill Evans, later a star in Abercrombie’s private firmament. His first impression was that he seemed to be a lame “cocktail pianist.” Still, the guitarist became “lost in live music.” He sat a few feet in front of Wes Montgomery (“I was mesmerized”) and shared a stick of marijuana with Thelonious Monk.
His first big gig was with organist Johnny Hammond Smith (who for some reason he doesn’t name in the film). Smith’s first choice for guitarist, the already famous George Benson, was not free, so in 1968 Abercrombie had an opportunity to make his first commercial recording, playing standards such as “If I Were a Bell,” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” on a Johnny Hammond Smith’s record called Nasty. He was petrified at first, but after the first cut drummer Grady Tate turned to him and praised his playing. His career was off. Abercrombie sounds puzzled, incidentally, when he tells us that that record was his father’s favorite of all he made. His dad said it was the most jazzy of his son’s recordings. But what did Mr. Abercrombie senior know about jazz?
The documentary shows us Abercrombie negotiating with his guitar maker, teaching (briefly), driving around New York, and trudging through airports. It also contains a beautifully photographed and played live version of a tune called “Another Ralph’s,” filmed in a German club with Adam Nussbaum and organist Gary Versace. We are repeatedly told about Abercrombie’s sense of humor. In this scene, he demonstrates it. The guitarist is about to play a tune he said he wrote recently. Or at least he thought he did. To the composer’s surprise it turned out to be virtually the same as his 1974 composition “Ralph’s Piano Waltz.” He tweaked the “new” piece a little, and called it “Another Ralph’s”.
Among the more fascinating segments is one near the end, when Abercrombie is asked to demonstrate to the viewer how he practices. He’d already discussed his first ECM record, Timeless (1974), which, made with keyboardist Jan Hammer and the great drummer Jack DeJohnette, he believes to be his best recording. Ironically, ECM’s Manfred Eicher had to pester Abercrombie to make his own record. The difficulty, Abercrombie explains, was that he hadn’t written enough, or perhaps he hadn’t penned enough he would consider appropriate. So he got to work. He used his cassette recorder to lay down drones and other background material, and he improvised over the sounds. Somehow, melodies arrived in the process.
In the second to last scene of Open Land we see the guitarist playing freely, which was among his practice techniques. The result sounds disorganized, and not entirely gripping. The idea was to see if something might come out of it. Abercrombie then demonstrates a second practice technique. He assigns himself a key, in this case the common guitar key of E, and starts to play around in it. After a period of wandering through the resulting sounds he begins to play, intentionally or not, the melody of “Timeless,” his most famous composition: it is the title cut on his first record for ECM. Miraculously, Abercrombie seems to be rediscovering the tune before our eyes. Every time he picked up a guitar he started a process of rediscovery: it’s how he kept the music fresh. This documentary, which should be compelling to guitarists and to jazz fans in general, ends with “Timeless ” — as it was recorded, playing over the credits.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. (He plays piano badly.)