Film reviews

DVD REVIEW: Open Land – Meeting John Abercrombie, a film by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus

Open Land – Meeting John Abercrombie, a film by Arno Oehri and Oliver Primus 
(ECM DVD 675 1136.  Review by Mary James)

How can 90 minutes encompass a whole life? Well they can’t of course, you can only hint at the essence of a person and that’s what filmmaker Arno Oehri has done in this beautiful film about John Abercrombie, released on ECM. The film will be absorbing for fans of Abercrombie and a gentle introduction for those who are yet to discover him. There is no narration, just Abercrombie speaking to the camera as he’d talk with a friend, and excerpts from his ECM albums.

No music is played from Abercrombie’s album Open Land but perhaps the film’s title is a tribute to the man’s character? Many interviewees speak of his openness, perhaps none more eloquently and movingly than his wife Lisa who, whilst recognising she is second to music in his life, says that he accepts people, never tries to shape them, a rare quality. Others mention that he could be silly (especially on the road) and very funny, always self-deprecating. “Have Brad Pitt play me in a film.”

Anecdotes abound, all hinting at the man – his unexpected unspoken meeting and sharing a joint with Thelonious Monk outside a Boston club; his being wooed by ECM for a first album and being forced to actually write something (which turned out to be Timeless); his move to the West Coast in early marriage, despite the lack of work, because he loved Lisa; the total loss of his possessions in a fire; his first hearing Coltrane – “the mothership has landed”; his father’s admiration for his very first album above all of his recordings.

And then we gain insights into the musician who plays with his thumb, never a plectrum (as his hero Wes Montgomery did), who says he plays according to the personalities of his many guitars, who is still determined to change, to improve, play in different bands, who says his music is about emotion, that the melancholy sound is a feeling not a technique and that’s what ties him with Eicher.

The visuals subtly complement the soundtrack, icy riverscapes to Timeless, New York at night in Sad Song, a few precious family photos that escaped the fire. Hearing the tracks out of context is arresting. Above all, there is an overwhelming sense of the modesty of the man which is hard to reconcile with a musician who played on over 50 ECM recordings. Poignant then that he died before this intimate and satisfying film was released.

Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter working with Maciek Pysz and others. Twitter @maryleamington

LINK: Mary James’ interview with John Abercrombie from 2015

Categories: Film reviews

3 replies »

  1. Lovely review, Mary. The only thing I feel compelled to correct is this statement: “And then we gain insights into the musician who plays with his thumb, never a plectrum…”

    John moved from playing with a pick to his thumb in the mid-'90s; before that, he always used a pick. Just listen to his tone on “Timeless” and compare it to the footage of John playing “Another Ralph's,” with Gary Versace and Adam Nussbaum. Beyond the guitars, the amps and the effects, John's more warm and earthy tone shines through in his use of his thumb.

    Just thought it important, for clarity, that this was a mid-career Change, not a lifelong habit.


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