Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bill Frisell Trio. Iron Horse, Northampton MA, June 20, 2007.

On the night before the first day of this year's summer, Bill Frisell looked through the cracks of light coming from behind the stage at the Iron Horse Music Hall and commented, "It's still light out here, which is good because I'm afraid of the dark."

The Iron Horse, a rustic yet comfortable music venue, appeared to be sold out for this Wednesday night show with an enthusiastic crowd of diverse ages. "Tony just said this is a really nice place to play, and I have to agree," Bill said when the trio, completed by
Tony Scherr (acoustic bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums), took the stage for their encores. Their uninterrupted two hour set included free improvs, Frisell originals (Strange Meeting), and classics of American music such as Monk's Mysterioso, Surfer Girl, Just Like A Woman, and When You Wish Upon A Star. Guitarists looking for technical inspiration were, as usual, disappointed, as Frisell's stance on stage is always sideways, facing in toward his band.

Musical inspiration was,
however, in no short supply. Frisell is, of course, a repeat winner many times over in Downbeat's critic's and reader's polls for best guitarist. Although he shares the conventional jazz player's love of remaking popular songs, what Frisell does with them is not simply riff over a sequence of clever chord substitutions. A typical jazz take on a standard may come across as a legitimizing effort on the part of the player to nobly elevate a pop song into the realm of "Art." Frisell's choice of songs may be outside normal conventions, but he treats them with great respect and without irony. What he brings to his repertoire is a filtering of the material through a style that renders his choices more "American," yet somewhat more alien at the same time. Frisell's musical sensibility is informed by an attitude that combines a cerebral cool with hickster quirk. His lines are a bit squirmy, and fractured in time, with sudden pauses and acidic dissonances. When he plays a longer run, which is infrequent, the notes are evenly rounded, with smooth attacks, only hinting at what a master he is. I have never heard him show off, live or on record. He seems to play only to serve the musical idea underway. Likewise, his bandmates rarely take a solo. They work at things together and, in the long run, this approach is probably more satisfying for the players as well as the audience.

Frisell has for a long time been a fan of digital devices that augment his sound. Years ago he was setting up long delay lines that added ghostly, shadowy background echoes. For quite a while now, he has been integrating digital delays to sample his own playing during performances, playing back tinkling, repitched fragments octaves above the original, or in reverse; sometimes calling up a stored repetitive figure to play against. He is getting really good at tweaking the little sampling box that sits on a stool in front of him, essentially adding another instrument to the trio.

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