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Bill Frisell: Live Download Series #14-17


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DS#001-013 | DS#014-017

In a previous All About Jazz article, the first thirteen installments of guitarist Bill Frisell's remarkable Live Download Series were reviewed. Beginning in 2009, Frisell and Songline/Tonefield Productions began making available high quality, download-only (but in formats including 320K MP3 and lossless FLAC) live performances dating as far back as 1989, when the guitarist was on the road to support his Elektra/Musician debut, Before We Were Born, released the same year. What has made this series so important is that, as is the case with so many artists, far more goes on than can ever be documented through normal commercial channels. Frisell, in fact, left Nonesuch Records for Savoy Jazz in 2010, after a very fruitful twenty-year run because, as good as the label had been to him (and his parting was, as ever with the amiable Frisell, absolutely amicable), it was unprepared to release more than one record per year, a rate which Frisell felt simply could not keep up with the increasing number of projects he had on the go.

But even though Savoy has released a whopping four albums in the course of nineteen months, beginning with Beautiful Dreamers, in August, 2010, through to the most recent Floratone II in March of this year (and the next release is already in the can and nearing release in 2013), even that can't hope to document all the various permutations and combinations of groupings with which Frisell has worked since forming his first touring group in the mid-1980s for his third (and final) ECM recording as a leader, 1988's Lookout for Hope.

What turns out to be most fortunate for Frisell fans is that Frisell's live sound engineer/touring manager of nearly a quarter century, Claudia Engelhart, has also been recording most if not all of the guitarist's performances, and so the challenge, when deciding what to release, is not to find any material, it's finding the best material. Frisell doesn't piece together "perfect" collections from various performances in his Live Download Series; instead, he chooses the best overall single performance—with the significant assistance of Live Download Series Director Adam Blomberg, who (amongst many other responsibilities at Songline/Tonefield) actually sifts through the hundreds of hours of recordings to bring the best of the bunch to the guitarist's attention—and releases it, warts and all.

Of course, there are few actual warts to be found amidst what is now a series of seventeen installments that, in addition to documenting live performances from earlier groups that have seen commercial release—like Frisell's original quartet of cellist Hank Roberts, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron, his mid-1990s quartet with violist Eyvind Kang, trumpeter Ron Miles and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and his 2000-era trio with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen—to groups that are being heard here for the first time, from his trio with organist Sam Yahel and drummer Brian Blade to an expanded edition of his Kang/Miles/Fowlkes Quartet, fleshed out to a quintet with the addition of clarinetist Don Byron. And as important as the quality of the performances, all seventeen Live Download Series releases sound great, too, thanks to Engelhart's careful attention at the soundboard.

The most recent spate of Live Download Series releases, numbered #014 through #017, include live recordings from two of Frisell's most recently recorded groups—in this case the Beautiful Dreamers trio, and his decade-old 858 Quartet, responsible for Sign of Life (Savoy, 2011)—as well as an archival set from the group responsible for his tremendous "covers" record, Have a Little Faith (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993), performing much of that record plus early versions of what would become 1994's This Land (Elektra/Nonesuch). There's also a rare opportunity to hear Frisell in a naked duet with pedal steel/lap steel guitarist Greg Liesz, a seminal member of various Frisell constellations since the guitarist's Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999).

Bill Frisell—Live Download Series #14Bill Frisell
#014: Chapel Hill, NC March 22, 2009
Songline/Tonefield Productions

What has always made Frisell an artist worth seeing live is the way he constructs his set list—or, perhaps, deconstructs it. As he demonstrated in his 2012 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival appearance, performing two sets of music from The Beatles' John Lennon, he's achieved the level of trust with his various groups that allows him, in most instances, to hit the stage with little more planned than the opening song. From there, what his groups play and how they get from one song to the next is the real magic—the trip being as important as the destination. There are a couple of breaks in this marvelous 2009 duo performance with Greg Liesz in Chapel Hill, NC, but for the most part the duo seamlessly moves from one song to the next without pause. The segues (much like the songs themselves) are the result of spontaneous—if not exactly decisions, which would imply too much conscious thought, then certainly in-the-moment, subconscious intuition—choices based on one or the other playing something, anything—whether it's a tiny revelatory motif or even, perhaps, just something that suggests where the two might go next.

Liesz has contributed significantly to recordings like drummer Brian Blade's unexpectedly superb singer/songwriter debut, Mama Rosa (Verve, 2009), but it's with Frisell that he really has the freedom to explore the full range of his instruments, feeding them through an array of effects that rivals his partner's own sonic arsenal. In a set list that dates back to "Throughout," the second track on Frisell's 1983 leader debut, In Line (ECM), and moves forward to clarinetist Benny Goodman's "Benny's Bugle," from Beautiful Dreamers (on which Liesz did not originally play), this 80-minute set also epitomizes Frisell's longstanding modus operandi, which his little to do with individual soloing and more with collective interpretation, as individual instruments move forward and back in the mix, but are just as often on equal footing—especially in the stark duo setting heard here.

It's no surprise that tracks from Frisell's more overt Americana recordings feature strongly, including "Keep Your Eyes Open," from Nashville (Nonesuch, 1997), and, from Good Dog, Happy Man, a lengthy exploration of the brighter "Monroe"—here taken to more oblique territory by both players, as they effortless work off each other's ideas and, at times, seem to finish each other's sentences the way old married couples do—and the memorable, descending major scale melody of "Poem for Eva." But even if other tracks—like "Baba Drame," from 2003's The Intercontinentals, country star Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," from Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000), Irving Mills' "Lovesick Blues," from 2009's Disfarmer (Nonesuch), and the traditional "Cluck Old Hen," first heard on 2002's bluegrass-informed The Willies (Nonesuch)—demonstrate Frisell's ongoing ability to find fresh things to say (to surprise, even) with often-covered songs of the simplest of constructs, regardless of the context, he goes a step further with a Beach Boys song, Brian Wilson's "Surfer Girl," appearing on a Frisell recording for the first time, as a gentle, almost lullaby-like ballad.

Sonically lush, with Liesz' soaring pedal steel a perfect foil for Frisell's sustaining notes that seem to hang on almost indefinitely, this download is not just special because it features a previously undocumented context, but because it shines a particularly strong spotlight on Liesz. A Frisell partner for more than a decade, in larger contexts, Liesz is often subsumed into the greater whole, but is heard here with far greater clarity and delineation, revealing a far more experimental musician than might previously have been considered.

Bill Frisell—#015Bill Frisell
#015: Seattle, WA August 6, 2011
Songline/Tonefield Productions

Heard literally two weeks and 3,500 miles apart—first, in Ottawa, Canada on June 25 and then in Kongsberg, Norway on July 9, 2010, Frisell's then-new Beautiful Dreamers trio had already made significant strides. Featuring violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston—a relative newcomer to Frisell's growing cadre of players from whom to draw, having performed one of his first live dates with the guitarist just three years previous in Ottawa in 2007—the trio had yet to release its self-titled Savoy Jazz debut the following month. This recording, from Seattle, WA nearly a year after the album's release, finds the trio even more empathically connected—no surprise, perhaps, and especially because both Kang and Royston have, since first hooking up with Frisell (in Kang's case, in 1996 for the guitarist's Quartet (Nonesuch)), collaborated with the guitarist in so many different projects.

What might be a surprise, however, is how little of Beautiful Dreamers, the album, shows up in this live set list. A suitably quaint but far more experimental version of Vincent Youmans' "Tea for Two" is performed back-to-back with a much longer take on Frisell's own "Winslow Homer," which ultimately reveals itself to be an abstruse blues, but one where Kang's added delay, wah-wah pedal and pitch-shifted pizzicato render the trio's lack of a bassist all but irrelevant. Frisell has, in fact, worked in many bass-less contexts—starting with Paul Motian's trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano, which was just entering its second quarter century of existence when the drummer passed away—but the combination of guitar, viola and drums has always seemed like one of Frisell's more unusual lineups.

The trio also revisits Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein's "Goin' Out of My Head," originally a hit for Little Anthony & The Imperials in 1964, but here demonstrating just how easily Frisell can be simultaneously reverent and irreverent. Clearly, time is something that's on his mind these days, as his introduction to the set includes an unusually chatty anecdote:

"Did anybody see when The Rolling Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Mick Jagger was standing behind Ed Sullivan sort of imitating him and stuff? I thought that was just so rude of him to be doing that...but I'm glad he did because I can still remember it."

Along with another look at "Baba Drame," Frisell, Kang and Royston also provide the audience with a taste of what was to come the following month, when the guitarist released All We Are Saying... (Savoy Jazz, 2011), his John Lennon tribute, despite neither Kang nor Royston appearing on it and one of the two tracks played here—"Strawberry Fields Forever"—not appearing on the album proper, only as a solo guitar bonus track on iTunes. Still, both "Strawberry Fields" and "Give Peace a Chance" demonstrate the trio's pliant ability to honor a song while twisting and turning it into something the composer could never have imagined possible. "Strawberry Fields" retains all the song's significant markers in a reading that ranges from ethereal to grounded and, at one point, even kicking things up when Frisell throws some gritty distortion into the mix.

But it's really just evidence of Frisell's desire to scope out good music and use it as grist for collective interpretation, where instruments often shift responsibilities like a well-trained tag team and, if it's not possible to play all the components in a song, then suggest them through uncanny implication. Clearly, a year after its inception, the Beautiful Dreamers trio still had plenty of life—and live recordings such as this only engender hopes that there's still more to come.

Bill Frisell—#016Bill Frisell
#016: Florence, Italy February 10, 1993
Songline/Tonefield Productions

Perhaps the real find of the latest batch of live downloads, this 1993 quintet performance focuses largely on Frisell's most unique cover recording, Have a Little Faith, with material coming from sources as divergent as pop megastar Madonna, singer/songwriters Bob Dylan and John Hiatt, bluesman McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters), tenor sax giant Sonny Rollins, and classical composers Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.

One of the many highlights of this 126-minute show is a complete performance of Have a Little Faith's quirky, "Billy the Kid," here expanding Copland's well-known suite to over twenty-seven minutes and allowing the quintet—with clarinetist Don Byron, accordionist Guy Klucevsek, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron—more room to move. Only the playful "Street Scene in a Frontier Town" is a more-or-less faithful replication of the album track—and, curiously, is swapped in running order with the most expanded movement, the seven-and-a-half-minute "Mexican Dance and Finale." It's been nearly 18 years since the core trio of this group (Frisell, Driscoll and Baron) played together, and Frisell's ability to find other bassists and drummers has been nothing short of remarkable, with bassists including Viktor Krauss and Tony Scherr, and drummers Rudy Royston and Kenny Wollesen, but his first trio remains special one, in particular Baron, whose huge smile while playing is so clearly reflected in what can be heard without seeing him, his solo on "Prairie Night (Card Game at Night)" a perfect combination of focused construction and reckless abandon.

Other highlights from Have a Little Faith are Ives' dark "The 'Saint-Gaudens' in Boston Common" and, in Stephen Foster's "Little Jenny Dow," evidence that Frisell's Americana predilections were, as he suggested in his 2011 All About Jazz Interview, there all along. But beyond material from Have a Little Faith, this live set also provides the chance to hear more music from the forthcoming This Land, even thought the actual sextet that recorded one of Frisell's best albums of original compositions has already been released performing half a dozen of its tracks on #009: Recorded Live in New York, NY 10/12/92 (Songline/Tonefield, 2010).

Here, the set opens with a more atmospheric version of "Jimmy Carter, Pt. 1," morphing into a free improvisation that finally resolves into a gradually intensifying look at "Strange Meeting"—a song that Frisell performed regularly in his early days, after first appearing on Rambler (ECM, 1984), but which has sadly been missing from more recent set lists (time to revive it, perhaps?). It's also an opportunity to hear "Unsung Heroes," from one of Frisell's most overlooked yet impressive recordings, 1991's Where in the World, which formed something of an aesthetic triptych with Have a Little Faith and This Land. Here, stretched out to nearly fourteen minutes in length, it raises the question and hopes that, if Frisell's quartet with Roberts, Driscoll and Baron toured Where in the World, perhaps Blomberg will be able to find a release-worthy live recording as a future Live Download Series installment. "Pip, Squeak" is another piece from Frisell's relatively early days, initially found on Before We Were Born but also available in a trio version on Live (Gramavision, 1995). Here, with the addition of Byron and Klucevesk, it may simply be the best version on record—form and freedom finding their way to a perfect nexus point.

Bill Frisell—#017Bill Frisell
#017: Portland, OR February 25, 2012
Songline/Tonefield Productions

The most recent installment of Frisell's Live Download Series is from one of the guitarist's more recent shows, his 858 Quartet—violinist Jenny Scheinman: violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Herb Roberts---performing a chunk of music from its most recent Sign of Life (Savoy, 2011) in Portland, Oregon. This string quartet—where Frisell essentially replaces one of the violinists—also covers pianist Thelonious Monk's "Skippy" with considerably more success than world-renowned Kronos Quartet's sadly unsuccessful Monk Suite: Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk (Landmark, 1985) , and for one simple reason: as superb as Kronos was at the time of its recording (daring, even), it was still connected to the classical sphere—albeit of the most contemporary kind—and not particularly astute in the area of improvisation, though perhaps this has changed in the ensuing 28 years.

With Scheinman, Kang and Roberts all excellent improvisers as well as tremendous interpreters of structure—so much so that, in Sign of Life's credits, Frisell cites "All arrangements (on the spot and subject to change) by Bill Frisell, Eyvind Kang, Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinman"—it's not just a matter of approaching Frisell's music with completely open minds; these four players have, by this time, worked together in so many different contexts that there's little need for discussion, so deep is the empathy shared amongst them. "Skippy" may be short, but it proves that even a string quartet can swing with the right players.

The majority of the set is taken up by the first six pieces on Sign of Life, suitably expanded and with a take on the traditional "Cluck Ol' Hen" thrown in between "Friends of Mine" and "Wonderland" so seamlessly as to suggest it might have deserved a place there on the studio album. While some of effects that Frisell employs far more liberally on other recent Live Download Series installments can be found here, he's far more judicious, introducing a ring modulated pattern at the end of "Friends of Mine" that helps segue into "Cluck Ol' Hen," with Scheinman acting as the real catalyst for change.

With All We Are Saying... Frisell's most recent release at the time of this February, 2012 show, it's no surprise that the guitarist chooses to throw in a version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (again, noting that it's only available as an iTunes bonus track). Even though the arrangement is, indeed, developed on the fly—as, clearly, is the quartet's live suite from Sign of Life—it's a more compelling version than on #015: Seattle, WA August 6, 2011, if only because there's more instrumentation available, though Frisell does resort, in both versions, to some backwards-guitar gymnastics, but this time over a far more extended coda. Despite the two versions being nearly the same length (858 Quartet's near-nine-minute version a minute longer), they demonstrate, perhaps more effectively than any other track amongst these four Live Download Series releases, just how absolutely open-minded, open-ended and completely unfettered Frisell is, regardless of the music's source and irrespective of context.

While earlier groups and performances were, as evidenced by #016: Florence, Italy February 10, 1993, cunning combinations of form and freedom, the structure and the order of the set lists were more firmly defined. What has been most impressive about Frisell's evolution over the past several years, has been just how flexible his live sets have become. Nobody, perhaps, is more surprised at the outcome than Frisell and whatever group he happens to be playing with, whether it's the John Lennon tribute in Ottawa, Canada or the live soundtrack performance to Bill Morrison's The Great Flood at Enjoy Jazz in Ludwigshafen, Germany this past November. Frisell's ongoing evolution continues—with great thanks to his commercial releases, a grueling tour schedule and, since 2009, this extraordinary Live Download Series—a very public one, and both his existing fans and the world of music—not just jazz, but music as a whole—are all the richer for it.

Tracks and Personnel

Live Download Series #014: Chapel Hill, NC March 22, 2009

Tracks: CD1: Keep Your Eyes Open; Improvisation 032209-1; Monroe; Throughout; Poem for Eva; Cluck Old Hen; I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. CD2: Surfer Girl; Baba Dramé; Benny's Bugle; Lovesick Blues.

Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric guitar; Greg Liesz: steel guitars.

Live Download Series #015: Seattle, WA August 6, 2011

Tracks: Introductions; Hard Times Come Again; Baba Dramé; Improvisation 1-080611; Tea for Two; Winlow Hammer; Goin' Out of My Head; 26-2; Strawberry Fields Forever; Give Peace a Chance.

Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric guitar; Eivind Kang: viola; Rudy Royston: drums.

Live Download Series #016: Florence, Italy February 10, 1993

Tracks: CD1: Introductions; Jimmy Carter pt. 1/Improv; Strange Meeting; Improvisation 021093-1; Hello Nellie; Untitled Original 021093-1; Pip, Squeak; Goodbye; Improvisation 021093-2; The "Saint-Gaudens" In Boston Common: Col. Shaw and His Colored Regimen (Excerpt #2); Amarillo, Barbados. CD2: The Open Prairie; Mexican Dance and Finale; Street Scene in a Frontier Town; Prairie Night (Card Game at Night); Celebration After Billy's Capture; Billy in Prison; The Open Prairie Again; I Can't Be Satisfied; Little Jenny Dow; Unsung Heroes; Have a Little Faith in Me; Washington Post March; Just Like a Woman.

Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric guitar; Joey Baron: drums; Kermit Driscoll: bass; Don Byron: clarinets; Guy Klucevsek: accordion.

Live Download Series #017: Portland, OR Feburary 25, 2012

Tracks: Introduction; It's a Long Story (1); Old Times; Sign of Life; Friends of Mine; Cluck Ol' Hen; Wonderland; It's a Long Story (2); Skippy; Strawberry Fields Forever.

Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric guitar; Hank Roberts: cello; Jenny Scheinman: violin; Eivind Kang: viola.

Photo Credit Juan-Carlos Hernandez

DS#001-013 | DS#014-017

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