Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 1-3, June 24-26, 2010
For Bill Frisell's second night at the OIFJ Friends series, he reconvened a group that came into existence earlier in the century to record music inspired byand originally included exclusively in an expensive art book, until Songlines released it as a standalone CD a couple years laterGerman painter Gerhard Richter. Richter 858 (2005) was some of Frisell's most challenging music in recent times, demonstrating that, amidst more accessible recordings like Unspeakable and East West (Nonesuch, 2005), the intrepid guitarist had lost none of the edge he displayed on early solo albums like Before We Were Born (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1989) and Is That You? (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990). As the years go on and Frisell introduces more and more projects, it becomes clear that this multifaceted artist never really leaves anything behind; he just blends it with everything else that catches his fancy, and elements invariably find their way up in the mix again, just more equitably balanced.
But the 858 Quartet that performed at the OIJF was a considerably softer, unequivocally more beautiful beast than that on the album, making its pending recording this fall, and planned new release early in 2011, something that will, no doubt, be high on the "must have" list for the capacity crowd that filled the Studio of the National Arts Centre. 858 is also a group that exemplifies Frisell's loyalty to musicians he has met and connected with along the way. Cellist Hank Roberts was a member of Frisell's first major group, dating back to the guitarist's ECM days and Lookout for Hope (1988), while Frisell first worked with violist Eyvind Kang on Quartetthe start of a relationship that has continued right up to the guitarist's Beautiful Dreamers, which played the Studio the previous night. Violinist Jenny Scheinman is the newest recruit, relatively speaking, first working with Frisell on Richter 858 and The Intercontinentals, and the guitarist returning the favor on her own albums including the vignette-driven 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone, 2005) and more ambitiously sweeping Crossing the Field (Koch, 2008).
With the sound of chirping birds creating a gentle, relaxed ambience in the roomso quiet that a whisper was like a roarFrisell and the quartet came onstage, with Kang and Scheinman mirroring the sound of the birds with delicate, swooping harmonics, and Frisell slowly building into the first tune. Using the same guitar as the night beforesome kind of custom-built/Telecaster hybridhe still had his usual mad scientist's rig of devices, but the volume remained so quiet that, had his guitar been a hollow body, it would have been possible to hear its natural sound over the amplification. Few well-known guitarists, outside of perhaps Jim Hallwith whom Frisell serendipitously collaborated on Hemispheres (ArtistShare, 2009)work at such quiet levels that it's almost necessary to lean forward to hear their music.
Frisell's tone, despite running through the same two Fender Deluxe amps as the night before, sounded almost acoustic at the start, though he did morph through a variety of textures throughout, even kicking in some overdrive later in the set, proving that volume isn't required to achieve a gritty sound. As much as Frisell's sometimes predilection for repeating long phrasesand working them with the subtlest of evolutions, such that it's only after a few minutes that it becomes clear just how much the music has changeddefine some of the compositions and arrangements he's written for 858, this remains some of his most heavily scored music, though there's no shortage for interpretation and solo space for everyone in the group. Roberts' feature, on a version of The Intercontinentals' world-informed "Baba Drame," was both a set highlight and clear indication of how even, in this case, a very simple premise can be milked for all it's worth, year-after-year, and still reveal plenty new in the process.
"Baba Drame" wasn't just an indication of how significantly context can alter the same music; when Frisell brought 858 to Mannheim, Germany for Enjoy Jazz 2010, it was the same lineup, save for Scheinman, who was replaced by another longtime Frisell cohort, trumpeter Ron Miles, and the brighter tonality of brass completely changed the quartet 's complexion. That performance was also a soft, near-acoustic concert, but 858's Ottawa performance more closely approached the sublime, with Frisell's shifting tones an egalitarian foil for Scheinman and Kang's sometimes unison, sometimes orbiting lines and Roberts' occasional plummets into near-bass walking lines.
Frisell revisited "Tea for Two" from the previous evening, but with a more circuitous arrangement that only revealed itself fully near the song's end. It was unmistakably engagingand enlighteningto hear Frisell rework Stephen Foster's traditional chestnut, "My Old Kentucky Home" for what is essentially a classical string quartet context, albeit one with a violin replaced by electric guitar. Chamber music this was, but despite being filled with rich string arrangements and ethereal segues, it still managed to groove, swing, and even get down and bluesy. It may be one of Frisell's more unusual settings, but as deep as the music wasplayed by a sympathetic quartet of players whose relationships define both a comfort level and an inherent adventurous natureit was as well received as Beautiful Dreamers was the night before. For a kick-off to OIJF's Friends series, these two shows were an unequivocal success, and bode well for the rest of the series, which will feature two nights by drummer Matt Wilson (one evening with Scheinman participating), one by pianist Robert Glasper, one by Europe's Globe Unity Orchestra, and a closing series performance featuring saxophonist Javon Jackson and his guest, legendary soul jazz pianist Les McCann.
Coming up in AAJ's coverage of the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival's days 4-6: saxophonist Kenny Garrett; guitarist John Scofield and the Piety Street Band; Mostly Others Do The Killing; guitarist Ralph Towner and trumpeter Paolo Fresu; Medeski, Martin and Wood; bassist John Geggie with drummer Jim Doxas, and trumpeters Cuong Vu and Jim Lewis; Korean singer Youn Sun Nah; and drummer Manu Katché.
All Photos: John Kelman