Bill Frisell Quintet
June 28, 2007
Prior to last evening, the only time I'd seen Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist extraordinaire (and long-time
Bill Frisell Quintet
June 28, 2007
Prior to last evening, the only time I'd seen Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist extraordinaire (and long-time Seattle resident) Bill Frisell in the flesh was about 15 years ago, when he came through my native Philadelphia as part of Naked City -- the notorious John Zorn-led spazz-jazz outfit. It was a show at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center, part of a jazz performance series, and I distinctly remember being surprised by the number of older patrons in attendance. Maybe they had no idea what was in store for them, I figured. I was further surprised during the first half of the set -- the group played it pretty straight, with Frisell's fluidity, melodic command, and trademark tone (augmented with delay, reverb, and volume pedals) standing out amid all that talent onstage. And then, after a brief intermission, the Boredoms' Yamatsuka Eye came out, and within moments all hell broke loose -- Naked City launched into its violent, shift-on-a-dime blend of speedcore, noise-rock, noir-twang, and free jazz, with Frisell and Zorn prodigiously propelling the action. It sounded amazing, and I kid you not when I say that I saw old people literally stumbling for the exits with hands over their ears and pained expressions, as if a concussion grenade had just gone off -- within a few minutes, the sold-out theatre was 80% cleared.
With that knowledge of Frisell's versatility and propensity toward experimentation and mischief in mind, I really didn't know what was in store when he took the stage of the crowded Dimitriou's Jazz Alley along with bassist Tony Scherr (Lounge Lizards, Sex Mob, Norah Jones), Ron Miles (Don Byron, the Ellington Orchestra, and a lauded solo career) on cornet, saxophonist Chris Cheek (Paul Motian, Charlie Haden), and nimble drummer Rudy Royston (who's been playing regularly with Miles for nearly two decades). But for the bulk of the 75-minute set, the quintet opted mainly for a reserved and traditional approach, though exceptionally engaging (and sporadically Monkishly dissonant), to both Frisell's compositions and various pop standards, including Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now."
There was no thrash on the menu, but the combo did create a stew of bebop, blues, rock, and country while creating moods that ranged from elegiac to elated to downright romantic. Dressed in black, Frisell grasped his Telecaster and maintained a smile and steady position at the right of the stage, mostly directing his gaze at, and playing off of, the enthusiastic Scherr and Royston -- whose touch and timing were simply superb -- while the nattily attired Miles and Cheek followed Frisell's melodic forays with their own rich tone and improvisation. The 56-year-old guitarist typically fiddled with his loop pedal and other effects, or detuned a string, only during the transitions from one number to the next, at one point playing a distorted chord that jumped out dramatically after all the gentle glides and harmonics. And though his playing shined during the set, and he was clearly the leader of this group, Frisell was loathe to hog the spotlight, and so it was an egalitarian performance by a true, masterful ensemble that found a more tempered way to test the boundaries of jazz.
Personal Bias: Though I don't possess a thorough knowledge of Frisell's solo catalog, I've enjoyed everything I've heard from him via my friends' collections or jazz radio, and I loved Naked City.
Random Detail: The lamb curry ordered by someone at the table next to me smelled incredible.
By the way: The Bill Frisell Quintet is playing at Jazz Alley through Sunday, so you have a few more chances to check 'em out.