Bill Frisell At The Stone

AAJ Staff By

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Bill Frisell
The Stone
New York City
September 7, 2010

Bill Frisell has captured the imagination of music fans of many types, since his first records in the 1980s. He is the world's favorite alternative take on guitar. Yet, he may be, instead, the next step in guitar rather than another side of the very popular instrument. Arguably, very little music of originality has come forth since the beginning of the '80s, but Frisell is one beacon that shows that the recent decades have not been all dark. Along with, perhaps, Radiohead, some pastiche artists of various genres (including also later Radiohead, with their more recent plundering of The Beatles' White Album), and even the genre-mixing songwriter Desmond Child, Frisell has shown a compositional skill in advancing progress of sound and notes.

A typical Frisell piece, even a cover, can begin with a conventional square shape. But then, Frisell will bend the square, so all the rules are changed. He plays within this new, distorted ex-square, providing the impression of a composition with two distinct sections: an A, and then, a very differently-shaped B section. It seems as though there are two halves rather than one piece with improvisation.

His well-known recent journeys into country and Americana only emphasize the advantage he has as a without-limits solo performer on a multiphonic, chording instrument. He can seamlessly enter into classical composition whatever he is playing, a blues, a folk song, or a jazz standard. His world is enhanced by effects that create a distinctive sound, but which is merely a backdrop for the notes that he makes, the sounds that he hears. He is like the taste of Eric Clapton, plus the stretched compositional mind of Ligeti, Lutoslawski or Stravinsky, all in one.

A kind of modern Aaron Copland.

Not surprisingly for a composer, Frisell frequently plays with a trio or duo, allowing unlimited room for his musical journeys and bending of the rules. This night at John Zorn's The Stone, the guitarist played with longtime drum cohort, Joey Baron. It was The White Stripes, but on a much higher and less constricted level.

The Stone is set on a corner of Avenue C, off New York's popular Lower East Side drag East Houston Street. Home also to venues such as The Local 269, the area is a must-see in the city. Upper West Siders: think diagonally!

The venue is small, one room with many artistically arranged photos on the wall. The air conditioning was turned off for Frisell, as it is for any performance. The downside was the air inside became so bad that several women left during the gig, to get a breather outside at some point. Frisell soldiered on, even mentioning, somewhat surprised, that he had just played Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," when people asked for something cool. Baron appeared totally unaffected, sticks nailing fabric like a fresh country sunset.

The first tune was Ron Carter's "Eighty-One," the first track on Frisell's trio album with the bassist and drummer Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006). Frisell started slowly, suddenly putting out a crazy, high pitched single harmonic note, defining the dynamics to come. He played Wes Montgomery-like octaves as he felt his way into the tune. The first solo Frisell learned was Montgomery's "Bumpin,'" and the guitar icon clearly inspired Frisell with a basic language, which the guitarist spoke before his own voice took over. He played some very attractive bursts of these more traditional jazz chords throughout the gig in various places. The music built, the percussion built a little.

The tune then morphed into a brief "Days Of Wine And Roses," before ending with a quietly repeated high note, as if entreating the audience to get ready for the next section of the music. As Frisell put it afterwards, the tune "evolved" into "Days Of Wine And Roses." Montgomery is clearly a key to the beginnings of Frisell, as the tune, which Frisell often plays, was on one of Montgomery's popular albums, Boss Guitar (Riverside, 1963).

A slow blues followed, with a quiet beginning featuring edgy Keith Richards-like sparse chords as the tune got under way. It sounded like very distilled, thoughtful music. A major feature of the piece was the twang effect of bending the second to top string and picking the top string at the same time. Frisell began with the bend, the first use of it being a reverse, or downwards, country bend. Then he even began a bar with it, with the already in-place bend, to set up a tense sound world. He also used pedals to alter the sound, in this case emulating an organ. There was a flurry of drum sticks as Baron joined the fray. Baron occupied the next twelve bars with cacophonous bangs, tin-like, as Frisell colored the edges with chords or two-string picked strokes. The final set of twelve bars added country-style bass notes, as a rapid, organ-like flourish followed the dirty, grinding slow-blues ending.

Wall of Artist Photos at The Stone

From avant-garde sky painting to grinding blues. Frisell then changed to a classic swing-to-bop style tune, Sonny Rollins' early "No Moe," felt by some to be a precursor of the more well-known "Oleo." This was a long piece, and very attractively played. A beautiful two octave-wide descending flow of notes ended on a neat four-note repetition of the tonic note. Montgomery-like chromatically placed chords arose here and there, and there was a Charles Ives signature—descending whole tones—heard twice: an effect similar to "The Wizard" from Frisell's Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009). There was also a brief seven-note Charlie Christian figure, touching bass with the harmony, which led instantly to a growling John McLaughlin-like effect in three slow, chromatically falling notes.

The familiar bebop channel, in the tune's middle section, provided a sense of the familiar which, in contrast to the first two pieces, welcomed the audience to a more "homey," if not homely, territory.

"Wave" followed. Jobim's peerless, diminished scale-sparked melody allowed Frisell to show the close connection he has with melody. Far from being an artist who just produces atonal jarrings, he states that melody is really the main thing in his music. This was a fairly straight version of the tune.

At the end of "Wave," the audience might have been thinking about no moe' stuffy air. Several voiced the issue, and Frisell suggested that the title he had just played might have helped.

The closer was slow and spacious, a Pete Townshend "See Me Feel Me" sound recreated during one bar.

Bill Frisell, musical architect. His services were well provided at The Stone. Joey Baron was the perfect foil, a handy percussive draft board for Frisell's free-hand sketchings and etchings.

Photo Credit

Simon Jay Harper
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