This intimate portrait of the life and career of jazz guitarist John Abercrombie is all the more poignant since he departed this life only in 2017 and this is therefore a fitting tribute to both the man and the musician. Growing up in leafy Connecticut, and born to Scottish parents, the portrait of Abercrombie is fascinating also from a social history perspective in that it sheds light on a second generation American of Scottish descent and that wintry climate and rural location must have seemed idyllic and reminiscent of their native land to his parents. Indeed, the state comes across as a near equivalent of the Scottish topography (the Scottish lowlands, perhaps) and this is a phenomenon witnessed by immigrants elsewhere. such as German immigrants in southern Brazil, who reproduced the Bavarian architecture of their homeland and their cultural lifestyle too. Arguably, it was that very same landscape in the case of John Abercrombie that served as a major creative inspiration in providing beautiful imagery for the young boy growing up, thus nurturing his creative instincts.
From the documentary, we learn that John Abercrombie negotiated three important and influential stepping-stones in his acculturation to the jazz idiom: in the first instance, it was during the 1950s, when hearing for the first time jazz guitarists of the calibre of Barney Kessel; in a second phase, widening his horizons to the innovatory sounds of the Dave Brubeck quartet, and in particular the mellow sound of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond; a third and seminal influence is that of Miles Davis, and it is the latter who seems to have exerted the most profound and long-term influence on the young and aspiring jazz musician. This documentary scores highly in taking us back in time to when John Abercrombie was not a professional musician and, moreover. reveals how, progressively, the guitarist would acquire that mantle. In fact, Abercrombie would go on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, an educational hot spot of musical excellence where, at a later stage, Gary Burton and Pat Metheny, to name but two, would rapidly rise through the ranks and become ECM label partners in turn. As an unknown young musician at the time, John Abercrombie worked in the small venues of Boston, gaining useful experience of live performance. As a whole, the documentary provides the viewer with an intimate vision of the musician in his then present day life, where he lived and in daily life with his wife, who reflects on the sacrifices that a professional musician has to make and the sheer devotion to their craft that comes before all else. The viewer witnesses informal rehearsals at home with his long-term band members, footage of a performance at a small venue concert, and travelling to New York in the depth of winter and beyond. One deeply emotional part of the documentary comes when the musician takes us to the very location where his former house was burnt down and everything was lost, including his beloved guitars. John Abercrombie and his wife had to start again from zero, but he was humbled by the sheer generosity of other human beings, and in particular his trusted guitar shop owner who brought him a new guitar the very next day.
As you might expect from a DVD that emanates from the ECM roster, the imagery is at once refined and subtle, with the music of John Abercrombie featured throughout with discreet signposting, but never overly pushy. That said, Abercrombie’s canon of work for the label is so wide-ranging and impressive that the viewer will soon afterwards be compelled to search for their favourite albums in their collection, and discover some others they were hitherto unaware of. Pride of place belongs to the 1974 ‘Timeless’ recording with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette, the title of which sums up his music perfectly. This is an ideal way to reflect upon the life and career of a musician who quietly progressed in his craft and, thereafter, became a highly respected jazz guitarist who made an impact on the history of that instrument.