Country music and jazz, musical cousins barely on speaking terms, both came of age in the 1920's. They have not really affected each other until lately, although their early histories have much in common. They emerged through back doors and depended heavily on irony and parody inherited through the blues. The phonograph record spread their popularity. They struggled for acceptance by legitimate musicians. While jazz continued to evolve musically country reached a musical dead end due to inbreeding and had to borrow from and fuse with other musics for a semblance of freshness. (A commercially viable formula derived in part from country, performed by unmusical pretty boys, and marketed as "Modern Country" or "The Nashville Sound" was perfected in high-tech recording studiosmostly in Nashville, Hollywood, and New York.) These days traditional country music, a dying art, is practiced by a few. The future of country appears to lie in hybrids such as Bill Frisell's quartet, a band whose sound derives mostly from the country tradition, although there is enough jazz flavor to keep it moving. Presented as a part of a "Gershwin and Beyond" series, Frisell began with brief, but worthy versions of four Porgy and Bess tunes. He chose not to piggyback on the classic Miles Davis - Gil Evans treatments that have more or less redefined the pieces for the jazz world over the last forty years. "Summertime" began with a free segment and evolved into a Frisell - Wolleson duet with Frisell emulating a steel pan before gradual disintegration. Frisell rendered "Someone to Watch Over Me," "It Ain't Necessarily So" (as a mazurka), and "My Man's Gone Now" in close-to-the-vest melodic variations over subtly shifting rhythms. Leisz switched to mandolin for a pre-WWI flavored "Swanee" (in cut time) that ended with a reference to "Old Folks at Home." The remaining tunes, original compositions, evoked a variety of moods: an old-time blues; a New Orleans-tinged piece with two-way guitar interplay; a quiet Mexican folk song (near "La Paloma") with Frisell on six-string acoustic guitar, Wolleson accenting with fingers (left hand) on snare drum and a brush (right hand) on cymbals; a groove tune with an "In A Silent Way" feel warmed up by Frisell; and a couple of continually evolving Texas-flavored numbers. The two guitarists often played subtly interwoven variations, relying heavily on sonic variation achieved through electronics. Frisell frequently adjusted his guitar amplifier settings, some of which appeared to be hooked into programmed loops. Wolleson, the jewel of the band, freely danced around the string players. Relying entirely on instinct he provided the dynamic yang. Bassist David Piltch has gigged with Tom Harrell and other swing-informed jazz musicians but he to play with a static, predictable feel to fit the music's humble mood. He bowed simple lines during his occasional solos.
James Carney (February 2) and Steve Coleman (February 23) are scheduled to continue the jazz concerts at the Skirball.
Bill Frisell - guitars; Greg Leisz - steel guitars; David Piltch - stand-up bass; Kenny Wolleson - drums.