Today marks the release by ECM of Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie, a film by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus. Music docs usually have a variety of talking heads discussing the artist, but almost all the speaking in this film is done by Abercrombie. He talks about his childhood, and his attraction to electric, not acoustic guitar. He is shown talking to and about luthier Rick McCurdy. Speaking of his guitar collection, Abercrombie demonstrates the dry wit with which anyone who knew him was familiar. “It’s easier than collecting pianos,” he says.
There are plenty of stills of the guitarist over the years, but all the footage of Abercrombie talking is from not long before his death, and all the live footage is of recent vintage. For early performances you will have to go to YouTube where you will find the guitarist as a young man, burning with Billy Cobham in 1974, dueting with Ralph Towner in 1976, playing his mando guitar with Richie Beirach George Mraz Peter Donald in 1979, and with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland for the Gateway reunion in 1995.
There is very little sun in Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie. There are montages of New York at night set to Abercrombie’s music and performances in dark clubs; even the sunny days are shot in winter with washed out color. There are shots through dirty train windows and of icy landscapes through a plane window. Yet somehow the movie does not come off as bleak or dark. Rather, it is portrait of the artist as an older man, reflecting on a life that, if it never reached the highs of some of his peers, never sunk to the lows of others. Traipsing through airports, carrying his guitar on his back, the guitarist may move slowly, but his spirit remains upbeat.
Abercrombie discusses the emotion we call melancholy as being something he is attracted to in music, and it would be easy to hear it in his. I prefer to think of it as modern romantic, but there is a certain tristesse that underlies the man and the movie. The snowy scenes that backdrop his talk about the fire that destroyed his house and everything he owned could be seen as framing someone in what should be the Fall of his life, unaware it is actually the Winter.
Lest I paint the movie as a depressing experience, let me say it is not. For those who never met John Abercrombie it is a loving picture of a brilliant artist content with his place in the musical landscape. As someone who knew him, albeit casually, it is a lovely way to visit him again.