Glimpses of a guitar great: meeting John Abercrombie (on film)

Those of you who have visited my website more than once or twice may be aware of my enduring interest in much of the music released by ECM. One of the mainstays of the label over the years, alongside the likes of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Norma Winstone,  John Surman and others, was the great American guitarist John Abercrombie, who sadly died, aged 72, last August. Abercrombie, whose first album for ECM was Timeless, made together with drummer Jack DeJohnette and keyboards player Jan Hammer in 1974, went on to work his magic on dozens of ECM albums, both as leader and as a sideman, composing for and playing with many musical greats. (If memory serves, I first heard him with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland as the trio Gateway; here they are many years later, playing Holland’s ‘Homecoming‘.) Abercrombie had a distinctively fluid, subtle style, understated rather than aggressive, quietly and consistently surprising yet with a strong sense of direction, melody and structure. It’s a pity he left us so soon.

Fortunately, however, not too long before his untimely death, he agreed to be the subject of a documentary film which was released on DVD a couple of days ago. Directed by Arno Oehri and produced by Oliver Primus, Open Land – Meeting John Abercrombie is an affectionate, low-key portrait of the musician, mostly in or around his various homes in Connecticut, but also performing with drummer Adam Nussbaum and organist Gary Versace at a club in Lichtenstein and jamming with some other musician friends in New York. To be perfectly frank, as a film it’s a faintly scrappy affair, its constrained resources evident in the use of a few too many Big Apple street scenes and moodily wintry coastal landscapes to accompany some lovely tracks selected from his extensive discography. But that doesn’t matter too much when so much time is devoted to Abercrombie himself.

Disarmingly affable, modest and witty, he’s pleasingly open in talking about his early life and clear,  articulate and unpretentious when it comes to discussing his art. Whether talking about his boyhood love of Chuck Berry; his later discovery of Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans; getting a break when he had to stand-in for George Benson; silently sharing a joint with Thelonious Monk (who went on to Bogart the spliff big-time); losing his house and belongings in a fire; or ruefully  recalling that his dad – a Scotsman who perversely insisted on calling himself an Englishman – would always say he liked his son’s very first album best (all the others were simply ‘okay’); whatever he’s talking about, he’s an extremely engaging speaker. That, and the inclusion of some wonderful tracks like ‘Sad Song’, ‘Banshee’, ’39 Steps’ and – by Abercrombie’s own admission, his greatest ‘hit’ – the aforementioned ‘Timeless’, make this pleasingly intimate little portrait worth checking out. Here below is a trailer to give you a brief taste of what’s on offer.

The DVD Open Land – Meeting John Abercrombie is available at and elsewhere online – or, one hopes, at good record shops.

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