Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 1-3, June 24-26, 2010
A new series with a new group on a new label. After being associated with Nonesuch for over 20 years, Bill Frisell has moved to Savoy Jazz. In a brief chat after his first of two shows at the National Arts Centre's Studio to inaugurate OIJF's new Friends series, the modern guitar icon explained that he was simply no longer able to release albums as often as he'd wantedsurprising, given that Nonesuch was regularly releasing an album a year, but not so surprising, considering that Frisell grew up at a time when artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were putting out two or three albums a year. With Frisell involved in so many projects, one album a year simply isn't enough to document them, and it's great news that Savoy is committed to a more aggressive release schedule. Beautiful Dreamers, his first for the label and featuring the trio he brought for his first Friends series performance, will be out in August, and he'll be heading into the studio this fall to record the 858 Quartet that will be performing the following evening, for an early 2011 release.
Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers is an aptly named trio featuring violist Eyvind Kanga longtime collaborator dating back to the guitarist's wonderfully oblique Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996)and drummer Rudy Royston, a relative newcomer who made one of his first appearances with Frisell in a trio with bassist Tony Scherr at the 2007 OIJF. Together, they consolidated almost all of Frisell's seemingly infinite musical interests and voracious appetite for exploring new ways to bring them together. Beautiful Dreamers can be a delicate, ethereal chamber group, but it can also kick ass, as the trio did towards the end of the set with a bluesy original that built from near-acoustic levels to a not-quite-ear-shattering but still powerfully loud climax.
As odd a configuration as Frisell has ever led, the guitarist's bag of sonic tricks was augmented by Kang's. Like Frisell, the violist employed real-time sampling and looping to flesh out the trio's soundthough, also like Frisell, more often than not in subtle waysbut it was when he began kicking in an overdrive box and an octave divider to send his already lower-end string instrument plunging into the range of a bass, that it became clear: this is no conventional violist. The viola is a sadly underused solo instrument as it isunfortunate because it possesses a richer and sometimes more appealing tonebut Kang's musical reach is as expansive as Frisell's, reaching into American country, hints of Celtic, tinges of Middle Easter tonalities and no shortage of just plain and unexpected grit. He's developed a number of recognizable and very distinct techniques over the years, in particular a way of doing trills and hammer-ons that are more often heard on guitar.
Roystona Jersey boy who has also been playing with another Frisell alum trumpeter Ron Miles, as well as Colorado-based saxophonist Fred Hess and, more recently, Beyoncé saxophonist Tia Fullerhas been contributing plenty of pulse to Frisell's live work, including a particularly fine show at the 2009 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, proved himself to be an equally fine colorist, as the trio began rather amorphously, with the kind of skewed, off-center harmonic ambiguity for which Frisell is known; only gradually coalescing into shape and form. Still, he's a groove-meister at heart, with a lazy, Jim Keltner-eseque backbeat that drove some of the more powerful music that created a marvelous arc to the 90-minute set that saw the trio called back for not just one, but two encores from the loudly appreciated audience.
For the first time in awhile, the set didn't consist of a lot of familiar Frisell that he's been mining, twisting and turning from albums like Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999) and The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003), though there were altered appearances from Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009) and the Grammy Award-winning Unspeakable (Nonesuch, 2004). Instead, there were a number of new songs, hopefully to appear on the forthcoming release, and covers that were also new to the repertoire. The trio performed an atmospheric and brief version of its very sweet namesake, covered Benny Goodman, pulled out a country standard ("Keep on the Sunny Side"), did a lighthearted version of "Tea for Two" and delivered a warm take of Little Anthony and The Imperials' 1964 hit, "Goin' Out of My Head," where Kang's pizzicato was out front, reverent but still ever-so-slightly wry. The trio also closed the evening out with a change-heavy bop tune that proved, if there were ever any doubt, that Frisell's overt jazz chops remain intact, and that Kang is equally capable of navigating rapid-fire changes while Royston swung with intent, as the trio only came together for the head at the song's end.
As ever Frisell's combination of electronic wizardry and acoustic techniqueslike pushing on the body of his guitar while holding a note or chord, to create a gentle pitch shiftwere absolutely unmistakable, and while he completely eschews any kind of guitar posturing, he remains a charismatic performer. Despite becoming one of the most imitated modern guitarists since Pat Metheny, he's never been copied. With a slow, thoughtful delivery that built on positioning which allowed him to hold notes as others moved a melody forward, at times creating his own internal counterpointand a remarkable ability to skew even the most conventional set of chords/voicings by altering but a single notethere was often an almost mischievous glimmer in Frisell's eyes, as he occasionally broke into a bigger grin at something either he or his trio mates did.
Frisell's writing for the trio was some of the best in recent memory, harkening at times back to albums like This Land (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994), still one of the guitarist's most fully realized albums, compositionally speaking. If Beautiful Dreamers' OIJF performance was any indication, the trio's late summer recording debut is going to be a great one.