Like many guitar players, John Abercrombie often led an organ trio, but his music was more contemplative than typically greasy soul jazz. Probably no other guitarist has had as long and successful relationship with Manfred Eicher’s ECM record label, but he still swung. In short, he was a true jazz original. The late, great guitar hero takes stock of his life and career in Arno Oehri’s documentary Open Land—Meeting John Abercrombie, which screens during this year’s Queens World Film Festival.
Open Lands opens with Abercrombie’s “Sad Song” playing over atmospheric scenes of Midtown Manhattan by night. As far as the musician’s fans are concerned, the film could go on like this forever, but Oehri soon shifts, introducing us to Abercrombie’s comfortable home. This is actually quite significant in retrospect, because the musician will later discuss in length the experience of being almost completely wiped out when his house burned down a few short years prior.
Abercrombie leads Oehri on a trip down memory lane, revisiting the nearby neighborhood of his pleasant, lower middle-class youth. He discusses his early musical experiences, but the highlight of the film is his vivid recollection of recording “Timeless,” his “greatest hit.” In doing so, he expresses great love and respect for Eicher and ECM (which is indeed an extraordinarily well-run artist-focused company).
Along the way, we also hear a good deal from Abercrombie’s last regular drummer and organist, Adam Nussbaum and Gary Versace, who are thoughtful when it comes to music and warmly affectionate when it comes to Abercrombie. Of course, the best part is listening to them play. Hats off to Oehri and co-producer Oliver Primus, because they totally got it. Unlike so many documentaries about musicians that lack confidence in their subjects to hold viewer interest, they include a full trio performance, with unedited solos from all trio members. It sounds terrific.
Obviously, Open Land takes on unexpectedly bittersweet dimensions since Abercrombie passed away last year (a few months after releasing his final ECM recording, Up and Coming). Yet, there are never any uncomfortable moments in the documentary, because Abercrombie always looks like he is in good health and good spirits.