Documentary Offers Intimate Portrait of a Demure Abercrombie


On 1999’s Open Land, guitarist John Abercrombie and his sextet played their way through a set of the bandleader’s typically elegant, spacious compositions. In many ways, Arno Oehri’s new documentary about Abercrombie (1944–2017) mirrors the improvisatory spirit its namesake album captured.

Abercrombie rose to prominence as a formidable shredder. He joined jazz-rock outfit Dreams in 1969, and played on Billy Cobham’s Crosswinds in 1974, furnishing its titular track with a fiery solo. Then, a year later, he released his debut for ECM Records, an imprint set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019. Timeless found Abercrombie performing alongside luminaries Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer in a quieter setting. The title track’s glacial pace foreshadowed the contemplative, intimate direction the guitarist’s career eventually took.

Oehri first met Abercrombie at Tangente, an Eschen, Liechtenstein, jazz club. The spot opened in 1979, and Oehri was a frequent visitor from the beginning. “I became a fan of jazz because of this club. In Liechtenstein, there was no other way to hear live jazz.” Oehri recalled. “In 1999, John Abercrombie played there. The tiny jazz community of Liechtenstein knew about him, but this was our first opportunity to see him play. He had just released Open Land, and that was the first time we met.”

Years later, Oliver Primus, Oehri’s creative partner, conceived of the idea to make a series of documentaries about guitarists. Primus, from Germany, previously organized concerts in Switzerland for Abercrombie and his band. So, when the pair finished a documentary about Argentinian guitarist Eduardo Falú, Abercrombie seemed like the next logical candidate. They first approached him about the project in 2009.

“He said, ‘Why do you want to make a film about me? That’s not interesting,’” Oehri said. “First, we had to convince him that he could be of interest.”

Once Abercrombie accepted the premise, Oehri laid out an unconventional approach. “The only thing that I said was that I’m not necessarily interested in doing a portrait that starts from birth and goes to death, and depicts all stations, and all bands, and all auditions, and just being a big lineup,” Oehri said. “What I’m interested in is the artist, here and now. It was really not important for me that we have all these famous bands that he played with. It was a very subjective approach.”

Focus on the daily life of a performer might intimidate someone interested in controlling the public’s perception of them or maintaining some sort of persona. But not Abercrombie. Oehri said that Abercrombie was “interested in how the progress was going, but he never asked about the content. And he never interfered.”

“John was so open-minded; there was no ego or attitude involved with him. He was very special in that regard. He was a very good cat,” said drummer Adam Nussbaum, who played with Abercrombie on Open Land and scores of other records. “Some bandleaders put limitations on you. But John always gave you a green light. ... He was one of the most truthful and open improvisers I knew.”

Abercrombie’s trust in Oehri and Oehri’s unstructured approach pays dividends early in the film when the pair visit the guitarist’s childhood home in Greenwich, Connecticut. The trip triggers a bit of reminiscing about Abercombie’s parents.

“I had a closer relationship with my mother than my father,” Abercrombie said in Open Land. “My father was always a little distant, sometimes. I think he wound up being proud of what I was doing, even if he didn’t understand what I wanted to do in jazz.”

The impact of Abercrombie’s casual disclosures of intimate details depends on the viewer’s familiarity with his music. To the audiences that loved him, his music already had transported his most profound truths.

“The deepest part of him is music,” said Lisa Abercrombie, his wife of 33 years, in the film.

When Abercrombie reminisces about smoking marijuana with Thelonious Monk or jams with students at Purchase College in New York, Open Land’s intimacy with its subject feels personal and revealing. At times, though, it leaves something to be desired.

Halfway through the film, Oehri includes footage from a 2014 gig Abercrombie’s trio with Nussbaum and organist Gary Versace played at Tangente. It’s an exciting, captivating performance, but casts a shadow over the rest of the film. The group’s electricity makes Oehri’s “here-and-now” portrait feel slow-moving or static in comparison. Where Open Land captures an intimate portrait of a man, it misses an opportunity to present viewers with a clearer vision of an artist.

However, Open Land satisfyingly delivers on the premise of its subtitle: “Meeting John Abercrombie.” And while the project was never intended as a eulogy, it most importantly gives fans the opportunity to spend a bit more time with a legend of the genre. DB

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