Norwegian Road Trip, Part 2: Kongsberg Jazz, July 9-10, 2010
The opportunity to catch a group more than once on the same tour is rare enough; when it's but one of an artist's many projects, rarer still. When guitarist Bill Frisell performed with his Beautiful Dreamers trio on June 25 at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, it was impressive enough; a fresh, new group that seemed to represent something both familiar and new. Frisell has been playing with violist Eyvind Kang since the mid-1990s, when he released the quirky yet eminently appealing Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996). Drummer Rudy Royston may be a relative newcomer, and has yet to appear on a Frisell recording, but in performances since 2007, he's been proving himself as capable of subtle colorations as he is laying down a relaxed, behind-the-beat groove.
But with an opportunity to hear the group exactly two weeks later and with an additional seven gigs under its belt, the creative potential of Beautiful Dreamers is quickly becoming clarified. Guitar, viola and drums may seem an odd lineup for a trio, but Frisell has plenty of experience with unorthodox lineups, one of the most famous being his longstanding trio with drummer Paul Motian and saxophonist Joe Lovano, last heard on Time and Time Again (ECM, 2007). Bass-less groups have, in fact, become both more easy to find and more readily accessible, with some groups using other instruments, like pianist Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes in saxophonist Chris Potter's Underground band, to fill in the rather large void left by the absence of a low-register instrument. Frisell, however, doesn't look for substitution; instead, he creates a full sound that's no less rhythmic when it wants to be, as was the case with his version of "Baba Drame," from The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003), but more often than not pushed the pulse in more unique ways.
Still, Kanga remarkable violist who rarely gets the chance to demonstrate that his own acumen with effects is as unique as Frisell'sdid use an octave divider to take his instrument down into a growling low-end support, and the pulse was never far away for Royston who, nevertheless, kept the volume low, even when he took a solo near the end of the set that demonstrated both virtuosity and restraint. With the levels so quiet that it became, at times, almost necessary to lean into the music, Frisell played liberally with tone, ranging from the near-acoustic to some singing distortion, harkening briefly back to his early days and more extreme playing on albums like This Land (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994).
The set list was a significant departure from the Ottawa show, where the often-played "Baba Drame" wasn't played (though it did show up the next evening at Frisell's 858 Quartet show. And when the trio did repeat a tuneas it did with the song that's both titular to the group's name and its forthcoming album on Savoy Jazz, as well the gentle reading of "Tea for Two" that the group played as an encore to its 75-minute setit was often completely transformed. This may be jazz, and so radical changes are something to be expected, but Beautiful Dreamers reworked the material so significantly that it was often unrecognizable until well into the song, the sound of surprise often so significant that where the group took the music was often as much a surprise to it as it was the audience, Frisell often breaking into a huge grin when things gelled especially well, which they did often.
From left: Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston
Opening the set with a 45-minute medley, the most notable evolution since the Ottawa show was the greater harmonic risk taken by Frisell; reharmonizing a straightforward blues standard so completely as to twist it completely on its side, while the core melody never lost its grit. And the entire trio engaged, both collectively and individually, in some totally unexpected twists and turns throughout the set, seeming to be non sequiturs initially, but invariably making total sense. Frisell may not be as edgy a player, composer or bandleader as he was in the early days of his solo career with albums like Before We Were Born (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990), but, based on his Kongsberg performance, he's clearly lost none of his creative spark or penchant for the unexpected.
Whether or not it was planned this way, programming Tortoise the night before Jaga Jazzista Norwegian group who cites the Chicago based alt-rockers as one of its influenceswas a brilliant move; the only shame being the relatively small (but, nevertheless, enthusiastic) crowd that congregated at Tubaloon. Tortoise has come a long way since its early days, and its return to recording, after a three-year break, with Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey, 2009), was a welcome return to form after its curious all-covers collaboration with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Brave and the Bold (Thrill Jockey, 2006).
From left: John Herndon, Dan Bitney, Doug McCombs
John McEntire, Jeff Parker
Combining elements of synth-heavy space rock, Kraut rock, dub, ambient and minimalism with Brazilian rhythms and a near endless variety of additional stylistic references, Tortoise live is, as King Crimson guitarist/co-founder Robert Fripp always describes his own group, a hot date as opposed to the love letter of its studio releases. In fact, outside of the hard-to-find box set, A Lazarus Taxon (Thrill Jockey, 2006), there's no documentation of the group in performance, and it's a shame, because as good as Beacons is (from which much of the group's set was culled), it really is a live act and deserves to be assessed as such.
A lot of groups are going the twin-drummer route these days, including guitarist Eivind Aarset, Jaga Jazzist trumpeter Mathias Eick with his own solo project, and progressive rocker Eddie Jobson's Ultimate Zero project. With three members of Tortoise drum-capable, there was muscular strength brought to songs like Beacons' opener, the groove-centric "High Class Slim Came In," along with vintage synths like John Herndon's Minimoog. Recent albums have also seen the group become more structurally focused, with generally shorter songs. Guitarist Jeff Parker, also playing synth during the set, brought jazz cred to the group when he joined for TNT (Thrill Jockey, 1998), helping make that album one of strongest in the group's 20-year run, but equally, the influence of Tortoise can be felt on his Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quartet albums. With a tone that harkened back to '70s funkpiercing treble, with wah wah pedal pushing it into a near screech at timeshe sometimes seemed just on the verge of feedback as he played repetitive lines that worked hand-in-glove with bassist Doug McCombs.
Despite the sparse attendance, Tortoise put out as if it was in front of a crowd of thousands rather than a thousand at best. It may be twenty years old, but with a visceral energy that belies the advancing age of its players (with plenty of graying and recession on display), there's little doubt that Tortoise is just as relevant today as it was when McCombs and drummer/keyboardist/vibraphonist John Herndon first began jamming together in the late '80s.