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.
It is hard to separate my review of this movie from my relationship with Bill Frisell. I first saw him play when I went to see Percy Jones’ Stone Tiger at the Bitter End in NYC. I loved Jones’ unique bass work with Brand X and was curious to see what he was up to. The great Dougie Bowne (Lounge Lizards, Iggy Pop) was on drums. The guitarist was some guy with an early Roland GR-300 synth guitar whose playing, both on synth and standard guitar, was like nothing I had ever heard. Alternately lyrical and jagged, his Thelonious Monk-like flights of invention were like Monk only in that they were completely personal and otherworldly. Not since seeing Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck in the Sixties had I witnessed someone who seemed to totally reinvent the instrument in their own image.
John was one of my first modern guitar heroes. His style drew on masters like Wes and Jim Hall while pushing the boundaries of sound, melody, and harmony further. He was one of the first to experiment with guitar synthesizer, but quickly abandoned it. Here is a personal remembrance.
The death of Nana Vasconcelos has brought back memories of a crucial stage in my musical development. By the time I moved to San Francisco in the mid Eighties, I had been listening to records on the ECM label for a long time, usually seeking records that featured guitarists like Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, David Torn, and Bill Frisell. Nana Vasconcelos was also featured on many of them. I was drawn to one he played on by the listing of a guitarist of whom I had never heard, Frode Alnaes. It was Sagn by bassist Arild Andersen and it seemed to relate to me directly. I had been playing with singer/songwriters for most of my career, always looking for creative ways to accompany them. The music on Sagn is based on Norwegian folk music. In typical Scandinavian musician fashion, Sagn ignored all boundaries and couched Kristen Braten Berg’s singing in jazz, rock, ambient, and Brazilian musics.
The eldest of the quintet of guitarists who ushered in the golden age of modern jazz guitar (with Frisell, Metheny, Stern, and Scofield), John Abercrombie has maintained the lowest profile of the group, while continuing to carve out a successful career and continually exploring new music. The Jim Hall-like delicacy of his touch, his relentless swing, and ability to play lyrically without ever descending into cliché or prettiness has been a constant source of inspiration.