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The widely admired, abundantly gifted and influential guitarist John Abercrombie died of heart failure in August 2017 at the age 72. In August of this year, ECM Records — with whom Abercrombie had a relationship for more than 40 years — released a DVD of a 90-minute, well-produced documentary titled Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie.
Filmed near the end of Abercrombie’s life, we see the guitarist gigging with organist Gary Versace and drummer Adam Nussbaum in Lichtenstein; jamming with friends in New York City; talking guitars with luthier Ric McCurdy; and teaching young music students at Purchase College, not far from the home he shared with his wife, Lisa, in Putnam Valley, New York.
Via interviews conducted in his house, car and elsewhere, we hear Abercrombie — unhurried and unassuming, with intermittent traces of wry humor — candidly discussing his life and career. He recounts the excitement he felt when first hearing the electric guitar in the records of ’50s rockers Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard. He talks about his dissatisfaction with his first guitar, an acoustic model, and his much more elated state of mind upon acquiring his first electric guitar, a gift from his parents. “It was almost like ecstasy,” he says, trying to explain the power of his attraction to the instrument. “It could be one chord, it didn’t matter.” He recalls his first revelatory encounters with the vinyl recordings of Barney Kessel, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis; his earliest efforts as a boy to learn and play jazz; his move from Greenwich, Connecticut, where he grew up, to Boston, where he lived for eight years, partly while studying at Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music); a strange and poignant meeting with Thelonious Monk behind a Boston jazz club one evening; his long and fruitful relationship with ECM and its founder Manfred Eicher, of whom Abercrombie says, “We like a certain kind of thing and a certain aesthetic or a certain feeling in music, which has to do with being maybe a little melancholy, a little sad, a little not-so-in-your-face, a little mysterious.”
Directed by Arno Oehri and soundtracked by many of Abercrombie’s ECM recordings, Open Land isn’t an exhaustive biography of the late guitarist, but it is certainly a documentary worth watching. —David Pulizzi
[caption id="attachment_14487" align="alignnone" width="1240"] Photo by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus. Feature photo by John Rogers.[/caption]