Anytime Bill Frisell comes to town, it's a big deal for me, has been for more than ten years now. If there is such a thing as postmodern authenticity, then he's it. He was embracing an eclectic mish-mash of Hendrix, folk Americana, thrash and bleep and blurp long before most of them were in vogue, and the times seem to have caught up with him, in a good way. He is one of my musical heroes. I haven't seen Frisell in five years, so that was reason enough to get up for it. To add to the excitement, the band he is on tour with is both bigger and more star-studded than usual for him: a hornline of the man, Ron Miles, and Greg Tardy, a string section of Jenny Scheinman, Eynvid Kang and Hank Roberts, and his usual rhythm section of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wolleson.
With the title of the band drawn from his "Unspeakable" album, which felt like an attempt at something more "mainstream", whatever that is, and the big group, I didn't know whether to expect a repeat of the record (already a couple of years old), or something else. We got an awful lot of something else. The MC announced that the band would play a set of brand new music, to polite applause. Then they unleashed the music, and the applause got less and less polite as the evening went on.
According to this very good review by the local Patriot Ledger (much sharper and more thorough than the one in the Globe, interestingly), some of the music was from recent Frisell releases. (I haven't heard the 898 band or the Carter/Frisell/Motian stuff yet. But Christmas is coming...) They stopped only occasionally between tunes; some pieces were connected by collective, noise based improvisation, some were direct segues. At the end of the evening, they did do some covers- Lee Konitz's "Sub-Conscious-Lee", the Delfonics nugget "La La La (Means I Love You)" and Monk's fairly obscure "Jackie-ing".
In brief, it was a fantastic show, delivering bigger than I anticipated, and I had high hopes. While this unit is a fairly recent entity, everyone but Tardy has a long relationship with Bill's music, and thier connection with the material resonsated far more than the few small cuing problems that showed the band's newness. Rather than rehash the Ledger review, a few things that struck me.
The more I hear Frisell, especially with these larger groups, the more I am fascinated by the way he moves harmonies inside of pedals. He'll set up an ostinato in the bass, and perhaps he himself will outline the chord related to the bass' pattern, but then the strings or the horns will roll around it, through it, in and out of it. This is hardly a new device, but something, I'm not sure what, about how Bill writes it is always fascinating to me. (Best example on recording is his wonderful Blues Dream)
Ron Miles, in the whole evening, never took a solo. That was the one bummer of the night for me, given my huge fandom. (Ron and Nguyen Le, my other unnoticed hero, get their own column soon, I promise.) The other soloist were wonderful studies in contrast. Frisell was understated for the most part, playing on and around the melodies when he did blow. Hank Roberts attacked the cello like he was chopping firewood on a frigid day. He seemed to find every possible way to bow the thing, from shrieks to moans to remarkable melodies. Jenny Scheinmann floated over everything with warmth and grace. And Greg Tardy was one part blues shouter, one part polytonal whirlwind. He played with a huge, almost overblown tone, shifting back and forth between a very bluesy language and one that was, well I don't know quite it was, except that it was the smartest, headiest post-Trane blowing I've heard in a long time.
When the band came up for an encore, a couple of people started shouting requests from the audience... requests for "Eat S* Jazz Snob". (From a John Zorn Naked City record where Frisell is prominently featured) Never thought I'd see the day... Frisell went for the Delfonics instead, replacing the sugar of the original for a folkier, maple syrup reading of the tune, plucking out the melody, then letting the strings whitewash down the line of the chorus. No less sweet than the original, but definitely more wholesome.