Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 7-10, October 26-29, 2009
Despite being named after his more extreme Richter 858 (Songlines, 2005), Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet performance at Ludwigshafen's dasHaus leaned more towards the Americana that's occupied much of the influential guitarist's interest over the past several years. Culling material from History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008), Frisell nevertheless brought some sharper angles and rough surfaces to the material, some of which he's been mining for several years, and dating as far back as the set opener, bluesy, ambling "Monroe," first heard on Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999) and the quirky "Rag," from Is That You? (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990).
Bill Frisell with Hank Roberts
Surrounded by longtime musical friends and partnerscellist Hank Roberts, who was a member of Frisell's first touring band; violist Eivind Kang who first worked with the guitarist alongside 858's fourth member, trumpeter Ron Miles, on the equally curiously configured Quartet (Nonesuch, 1997)Frisell's group was the definition of chamber jazz. Performing so quietly that photographers were asked not to take photos near the stage as the clicks of the cameras would be too loud, there were, in fact, no monitorsonly Frisell's two amplifiers and mikes on the other instruments in order to get sound out to the house. The intimacy amongst the four players, collected tightly together at the center of the stage to maximize eye contact, made for a 100-minute set that often flowed from tune-to-tune with a kind of comfortable dissolve into free play, oftentimes amorphous, yet always managing to lead to the next piece.
If ever there was a collection of under-rated players it's this one, with the obvious exception of Frisell, who has been an incredibly loyal musical partner throughout his own rapid rise to fame. Sure, he's played with Elvin Jones, Dave Holland and Ron Carter; but when he needs a trumpeter, Miles is invariably the first calland a terrific choice. Capable of acting as an accompanist in addition to rising to the top to layer tart lines, he was an incredibly intuitive player with a similarly curious musical wit that made him an ideal foil for Frisell's often quirky, comical turns. Kang was a versatile player who, with the richer, lower register viola, was at times a rich contrapuntal partner, other times supporting the slowly evolving music. Roberts, perhaps the most undervalued of them all, was outstanding, whether he was walking bass lines during what sounded like a curious rendition of John Coltrane's change-heavy "Giant Steps," improvising freely in the connecting passages, or delivering bluesy lines on History, Mystery's roots-meets-world-music "Baba Drame," first heard on The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003).
As for Frisell, a man who may hold the banner for "most humble guitarist in jazz," he was clearly having a great time playing with old friends in a relaxed environment where the written material was nothing more than a means to allow the quartet to go where it wanted. As always, a variety of effects and looping devices allowed him to stretch the sound of his guitar, and between songs he kept triggering a brief snippet of near-white noise, looking to his band mates with a mischievous grin.
(l:r) Ron Miles, Eivind Kang, Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts
There are those who accuse him of overworking a repertoire and, given the considerable cross-over with his 2009 performance at the Montreal Jazz Festivalthough that was a more conventional line-up, with Miles, longtime bassist Tony Scherr and relative newcomer/drummer Rudy Royston it's certainly true that, despite new albums with a preponderance of fresh material every year, Frisell continues to return to a smaller subset of songs. But Frisell feels that he's still exploring these songs' greater potential and, based on these two 2009 performances, there's every indication that there's still plenty of possibility. Without a drummer, the 858 Quartet grooved in a different way through Frisell's often repetitive structures, as opposed to his Montreal group. But groove it did, and explore and interact on the most intimate of levels.
It was the gentlest kind of free music, where there was enough structure for Frisell, Roberts, Kang and Miles to provide context, but with complete latitude to go where the collective mind wanted. Proof that free improvisation needn't be unapproachable, Frisell and the 858 Quartet played with the kind of unassuming honesty, deep feeling and playful sense of humor that could only draw in the sold-out audience.
If there was but a single lesson learned at Enjoy Jazz's four-day ECM 40th anniversary celebration, which ended two evenings ago, it was this: less is, indeed, often more. As prodigious a talent as pianist Brad Mehldau is, it's a lesson he could have applied to his heavily attended solo performance at the beautiful Christuskirche in Mannheim, on October 27, 2009.
Unlike many young artists who come to public attention too soon, Mehldau's meteoric career has been completely supported by a discography of almost unparalleled strength, demonstrating equally swift evolution over the course of his five Art of the Trio Warner Bros. releases from 1997 to 2001, and growing even further on more recent releases including House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006) and Live (Nonesuch, 2008), with his longstanding trio. With Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch, 2004) a thoroughly compelling live solo disc, expectations were high for his Mannheim appearance.
Cathedral of the century-old Christuskirche, Mannheim
While comparisons to the late Bill Evans were, even early in his career, always superficial at best, at this point Mehldau's voice is so completely defined to render meaningless any such references. If any comparison can be drawn, it would be to Keith Jarrett's legendary stream-of-consciousness solo performances; but whereas Jarrett pulls much from nothing, Mehldau starts with song form, though where his improvisations go is often anybody's guess. Mehldau has always combined his own writing with a healthy reverence for jazz standards and interpretations of contemporary sources, but his Mannheim show drew more decidedly from artists including Radiohead, Nick Drake, Nirvana and Massive Attack than ever before.
It started with great promise, as Mehldau opened with a demonstration of remarkable skill while, at the same time, avoiding the chops-laden excesses of most performers with his advanced technique. Mehldau can truly do more with one hand than most pianist's do with two, and with a set of simple changes, Mehldau grew the song organically and with inexorable logic. From a spare, one-handed arpeggio, a simple melody grew from his right hand, as he explored the keyboard both above and below his left. With relentless inevitability, it grew increasingly dramatic, with a kind of minimalistic repetitivenessbreathtaking and as distinctive an approach as can be found amongst modern jazz pianists. Few explore the lower register as thoroughly as Mehldau doeswith the possible exception of Paul Bleyand it created an immense sound that resonated throughout the cathedral.
Turning even more economical, Mehldau created a thing of spare beauty as even simpler changes supported greater lyricism and some attention to space. But that's where the set began to get into trouble. From that point forward, Mehldau seemed fixated on interpreting the material in much the same fashion. Changes asserted by the left hand led to a right that gradually built to mirror its partner, as a relentless eight-or-sixteenth-note pulse built to a climax to be sure, but ultimately, song-after-song, became too similar. It's one thing to have a unique approach; another to be so singular with it that there's too little variation. Again, Mehldau's technique was impeccable, as he reversed roles and soloed with his left hand, maintaining the changes and harmonic context with his right; few pianists in jazz possess this kind of remarkable ambidexterity.
It was a distinctive enough style, but one that rarely let the music breathe. If less is more, then certainly more is not more. Mehldau's undeniable talent, sometimes underlined by excessive cerebralism, would have been far more effective if, as on his own Live in Tokyo, he'd introduced both a little more variety and a lesser preponderance for filling every possible nook and cranny. All the more disappointing because Mehldau has always been so predictably superb, it can't be called a bad show, but it was one that failed to deliver on expectations built around past performances and his impressive discography.
The audience was, however, largely beyond appreciative, leading to one final issue with Mehldau's show. It's always a good thing to leave an audience happy but hungry for more, and by satisfying the audience's continued demands, by the time Mehldau had finished his fourth encore, the applause went from being thunderous as unrelenting as his performanceto quickly dying out. One encore is usually enough; two, recognition of a particularly enthusiastic audience. More than that and it becomes a case of diminishing returns. All leading to the feeling that, while Mehldau's performance was one that might be difficult to match in matters of technique, lacked the inherent musicality of pianists like Stefano Bollani, Bobo Stenson, Jarrett...and even himself, as Live in Tokyo and Elegiac Cycle (Warner Bros., 1999) amply demonstrated.