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John Abercrombie – Open Land
ECM Records

by Chuck Obuchowski

    It’s hard to believe ECM, the distinguished German jazz record company founded by Manfred Eicher, celebrated its 30th year of existence in 1999. Guitarist John Abercrombie has maintained an affiliation with ECM since 1974, when his first album as a leader, the now-classic Timeless, was issued. Abercrombie’s interest in the textural and timbral aspects of music, coupled with his passion for open-ended improvisation, made him a perfect fit with the "chamber-jazz" sound pioneered by the label.
    Three decades later, so much has changed in the music world, but Abercrombie remains true to his mid-70s concepts, adding and embellishing as he sees fit; his has become one of the most distinctive guitar voices in jazz today. A generation of younger plectorists, from Pat Metheny to Bill Frisell, is deeply indebted to the Abercrombie sound.
    Open Land, the Greenwich, CT native’s latest offering, is built around his 7-year-old trio with organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Three guests—Kenny Wheeler, Joe Lovano and Mark Feldman--join the trio in various combinations. When all six players are present, as on the title track (which moves from refined ensemble statements to wild improvised solos and back again), the group achieves an orchestral breadth of sound. When only one guest appears, as on "Speak Easy," Abercrombie’s affectionate tribute to his longtime association with brass master Wheeler, the effect is similar to the impact of listening to an accomplished string quartet, where an uncanny merging of individual voices ebbs and flows within each piece. Not to suggest that Wheeler’s trumpet sound isn’t identifiable...quite the contrary! For that matter, saxophonist Lovano and violinist Feldman are instantly recognizable as well, but the leader has found a way for every player to serve his compositions, rather than forcing every composition to serve as a feature for a particular improviser.
    Lovano, who’s worked with Abercrombie in a quartet led by French bassist Henri Texier, comes across as more subdued than we’re accustomed to hearing him. Feldman, however, manages to set a few fires with his amazing bow, most notably on "Spring Song" and "That’s for Sure." The guitarist sounds inspired throughout, although one wishes for a couple more electric outbursts like the one he unleashes during his extended "Open Land" solo.
    John Abercrombie still finds time for the occasional sideman stint. During the past year, he made some wonderful contributions to Charles Lloyd’s Voice in the Night album, to Colours by the Lars Moller Group (a Danish aggregation), and to Mystique, a session led by West Coast trombonist Dave Eshelman. In addition, he maintains a working relationship with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, his colleagues in Gateway, a cooperative trio originally formed in 1975, which reunited in 1994 after over 15 years.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2000

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