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Bill Frisell at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA

Lyn Horton By

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He was no longer playing solo; he had supplied himself with a small guitar band.
Bill Frisell
Iron Horse
Northampton, Massachusetts
July 13, 2009


When performing alone, a musician has to work really hard, since the sound produced cannot be interwoven within the sounds other band members create. The soloist is virtually right out there in the same space as the audience. The musician's vulnerability, in turn, is unmistakable. Combine all that with the personality transmitted in the music, occasionally through the words of the performer, and there could be no more honest picture of the musical artist.

At the Iron Horse on January 13 Bill Frisell sat close to the edge of the small stage on a bent wood chair. He was dressed completely in black. His amp sat to his right, a bar stool in front of it to hold his miniature computer equipment, which rested on top of a blue-patterned cloth to pad it. His Telecaster shone golden and white as he placed it on his knee. His approach was calm, dedicated—and unpretentious.


Frisell improvised swirl after swirl of a rhythm-less overture that acquired enough momentum to become a tune that oozed sweetness, as many of Frisell's inventions do. It was as if he were sitting on a front porch of an old farmhouse at twilight. His instrument's tonality dipped into the bass and then came back up again into the melody several times. At one point, a glissando arched into a bit of dissonance and angularity, but it was not long before he found his way back into the rhythmic structure from which he had briefly departed. A brief hiatus stopped the music, and then he continued, overworking the guitar strings purposefully until a single strummed chord ended the music. But this was only the beginning.

The rest of the performance unveiled how his process unfolds—an approach that adds and subtracts layers of sonic complexity. Fingerings of phrases become chords that have the same values as the notes of the phrases. The two motifs interact with one another so that the simplicity of the main melody line runs through the ornamentation surrounding it. Frisell can return to the mainline, even if it has become complicated, because he knows where it is in the stream. He was certainly not averse to slipping into identifiable tunes, like Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," because the melody was there at the tips of his fingers. The ornamentation he used spanned the performer's spectrum—stopping and starting, picking single notes and note multiples, fanning vibratos and long-lasting strums, moving up the scale and down the scale, going high and dipping low, seesawing between two notes, isolating notes that quickly become fluidly disposed, or repeating wave after wave of borderline trance music.

All his gestures produced sparkles and continued as if a mere aspect of "doing." He did not sit on the stage to show off: he sat comfortably on the stage to unfurl his playful imagination into vibrations, as a child might go here and there, to casually test the extent of the capacity of his instrument, almost (from the spectator's perspective) with a sense of naivete, except that for an erudite like Frisell, each movement was purposeful.

The layering process he has mastered became evident when he switched on his digital/manipulator/computer /dubbing machine. It was this little, even tiny, machine that sat on the barstool, operated with the pedals invisibly pressed by his left foot on the floor. It was with this little machine that he recorded himself, gave himself reverb, endowed himself with a drone and other differentiated musical lines. He was no longer playing solo; he had supplied himself with a small guitar band.

Mid-concert, the results of his recording and dubbing himself unpredictably turned into a carnival, with the performer continuing to play right along with it. The clusters of sound simulated organ grinders and merry-go-rounds and grew centrifugally larger and larger until Frisell stopped. He smiled and said: "Gee, the computer went out of control...Let me do that again" as he pressed the pedal to initiate what he had just stopped, adding "I wish I could do that with my bare hands."

Afterwards, he rolled out beautifully lucid chords and single notes outside of the chords, phrases which transformed into the melody of Henry Mancini's "Moon River." The tempos, the bridges from one phrase to another, carried the tune to an abstract place where he stayed for awhile, rebuilding his vocabulary to apply it to the same composer's "The Days of Wine and Roses," which he eventually changed into a pulsation suggestive of falling raindrops. There was one more improvisation where he played over a computerized construct: the layers were clear. His guitar-playing became tighter and tighter over a digitalized drone, which once again proved that Frisell can do anything with his guitar given the solidity that he builds from his muse's gift of an original accompaniment line.

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