JAZZ TIMES / by Evan Haga 6/13/14
“Does it help to let you know I was born in 1951?” asked Bill Frisell last Friday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room, before easing into the second show of “Guitar in the Space Age,” a program of the postwar country, blues and rock ’n’ roll that inspired him as a boy. Accompanying Frisell were Greg Leisz on pedal steel and guitar, Tony Scherr on upright and electric basses and Kenny Wollesen on drums and vibraphone—longtime collaborators with an especially developed understanding of the leader’s style-melding, chamber-like take on American music.
To know that Frisell is a baby-boomer was important, yes. The music he played, by the Beach Boys, Duane Eddy, the Chantays, Link Wray and others, is the stuff of childhood innocence for the Vietnam generation—the beach-party calm before the storm of cultural explosions that would transform America in the second half of the ’60s. But other résumé bullets would have been equally beneficial in making sense of the following 90 minutes: that Frisell performed in one of jazz’s most deeply interactive trios, with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, for three decades; or that he helped to redefine the jazz guitar as a textural instrument while a go-to player for ECM Records. To put it more directly, this was a rock ’n’ roll gig executed with the temperament and group dynamic of postbop.
Because the repertoire was so familiar, you couldn’t help but think of the original arrangements, and then of how Frisell and company were artfully remaking them: turning streamlined melodies into polyphony on the frontline, reinventing standard backbeats with swing and groove and space. Even the action onstage dipped in the direction of a communicative jazz band, with Frisell facing and lurching toward his rhythm section. (It’s a kind of anti-showmanship that works better in the Village Vanguard than in a concert hall, and Frisell owned up to that fact with a joke: “I hope you don’t mind looking at my rear end.”)
Frisell is a melodist first and foremost, and a lot about this set was strikingly beautiful. Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” skewed harder toward Nashville than the Byrds did; the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” made you wonder why the Lennon-McCartney book has become standard jazz source material but Brian Wilson’s songs have not; and Frisell’s “Shortest Day” offered the sort of bittersweet earworm motif you want to hear again as soon as it ends.
This program and its related album, to be released in October, made plainer than usual the idea that Frisell is a guitar fanatic but doesn’t subscribe to the many tropes that plague the instrument. He clearly relishes the electric guitar as a marvel of American technology. He used his trusted combination of Fender Telecaster-style ax, Fender tube combo amp and delay and looping effects to achieve his melancholy, art-house version of surf and vintage Nashville tone. But his take on this chopsy repertoire—Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West; surf instrumentals, with their emphasis on rapid-fire picking—was expectedly genteel. He focused on sonics, the liquid give-and-take between himself and Leisz, and his savvy negotiation of harmonic and rhythmic contours. (You could say the same for his jazz playing, but jazz guitar has more forebears who placed elegance above technical flash.)
You could easily accuse Frisell of being too precious with this material. Why let Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With the Kid” simmer and not burn? But there are so many other places to go for that. And to his credit, Leisz picked up the slack for conventional guitar heroism, countering Frisell’s inclination to, as Ron Carter would put it, “play clouds.”
Another real achievement here had to do with the handling of instrumental surf music, a midcentury phenomenon that deflated with the arrival of the Beatles. Its influence on popular music is incalculable—it expanded pop’s sonic language toward psychedelia and set new standards for virtuosity in rock ’n’ roll—but its legacy is one of kitsch and cult devotion. (Most of the great surf revival acts of the past 30 years have relied on a very good visual gimmick.) Frisell made surf music a plainclothes proposition, taking on genre standards like “Pipeline” in a way that restored their seriousness; these were and are compositions full of shadowy feeling and immaculate tunefulness. Wollesen’s secondary work on vibraphone, which he employed during atmospheric rubato introductions, further captured the intelligence and noir cool of first-generation surf, lounge and exotica.
Bill Frisell takes his music in a new direction on his forthcoming album, Guitar In The Space Age!. Set for October 7 release via OKeh Records on the new album the innovative, exhilarating guitarist explores the music of his youth along with steady collaborators, Greg Leisz (pedal steel & electric guitar), Tony Scherr (acoustic and electric bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums and vibraphone). Frisell explains, “Growing up as a kid in the early ‘60s, it seemed as if anything was possible—the future was going to be so great.But at the same time there was a serious sense of fear: the Cold War, duck and cover, the civil rights struggle—Vietnam was on the way. So while there was something really liberating and empowering about coming of age during that time, there was also a lot of darkness—it just had to leave a mark on you.” This is the material that he explores on Guitar In The Space Age! which focuses on unique arrangements of covers from his formative years, complemented by two original compositions. Click HERE for an external link of the Premiere
This is an old-school electric guitar fan’s album, played by one of the most creative guitar fans in the world. Bill Frisell is a lifelong lover of the quintessentially American invention, drawing on everything from Charlie Christian swing through 50s tremolo twangs to cutting-edge pedal technology. But it’s also a fine display of bluegrass and rock-inspired contemporary music, in which Frisell’s intelligent, jazz-informed sensibility is applied to 1950s and 60s classics by Duane Eddy, the Beach Boys, the Kinks and more. On a casual listen, he might seem to be treating the Chantays’ Pipeline or the Junior Wells blues Messin’ With the Kid as if he’s still a teenage guitar prodigy who has just excitedly learned them off the singles – but in fact this is as serious, witty, layered and subtle as any of his more abstract work. Check out a rapturously tender Surfer Girl, a delicately spacey Tired of Waiting for You – and Kenny Wollesen’s deep, casually flappy percussion, which elegantly counterbalances the metallic clangs all the way through. Click HERE for the original review.
PERFORMANCE REVIEW: AUSTIN 360/ Patrick Beach
Put an artist like Bill Frisell in a room like the Continental Club and there’s bound to be an outbreak of magic. The versatile guitar virtuoso in that intimate space? If you’re in Austin and not occupying a hospital bed and this guy is in town and you don’t go? Hmm, how to put? You. Are. Just. Dumb.
Saturday, the second of two nights at the CC ahead of a Tuesday night gig when Frisell and band will be slumming at Lincoln Center, was something else entirely. It was certainly the loudest and rockingest set I’ve ever seen him unpack at the Continental, in part because it contained possible selections from his upcoming album, “Guitar in the Space Age!,” a celebration of the early pop and surf music on which he cut his musical teeth before he tumbled into Miles and Monk and became, to use an incredibly reductive term for such an expansive and expressive player, a jazz musician. (The record is also reportedly a nod to the 60th anniversary of the Fender Telecaster. Frisell, in a fit of contrarianism or maybe just open-mindedness, instead played a Collings, built just a few miles west of downtown.)
“I’ve played more than 50 years and I’ve never really played this stuff,” Frisell said earlier in the day in an interview as local Tele master Redd Volkaert played a Saturday matinee. “I’m learning so much. I just got old enough I realized I really love this stuff.”
With the estimable Greg Leisz on pedal steel and guitar, the quartet made the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” sound like a hymn, which it kind of is anyway, and Leisz and Frisell were in full Vulcan mind meld mode, thinking a bar or two ahead of one another, paraphrasing one another or offering counterpoints.
Frisell’s known for his love of the pedalboard, with which he explores dreamlike textures in a style that’s tentative and considered, which is exactly the way he talks. (Not that he said a word from the stage Saturday, which was fine.) That and his musical restlessness make for something much more than jazz, which is as it should be because if you’re Bill Frisell, Guitar Virtuoso, you should be able to play anything you want and to see the world of song as one big, chapterless book that invites surprising and serendipitous connections. One of those happened during Duane Eddy’s rockabilly instrumental, “Rebel Rouser,” which at one point my wife noted sounded like it was becoming “I’ll Fly Away.” And I thought, That’s this guy’s whole point.
It was a slow build of a set, with “Pipeline” as the peak. The Chantays classic has been covered by everybody from Agent Orange to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Frisell made it sound as original as if he’d written it over a latte at Jo’s across the street as SoCo tourists puzzled over where the guide book said Mighty Cone was supposed to be but wasn’t. They encored with the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl, which felt like a recessional, which it kind of already is.
In the interview, Frisell said he keeps coming back to the Continental simply because he loves playing there. He first came to Texas, and Austin, he said, in 1993.
“It was another world, he said. “I wasn’t the typical thing they have here. And Steve (Wertheimer, the club’s owner) kept having me back and making me feel welcome.”
He’s welcome anytime.