Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet at The Palms Playhouse


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Bill Frisell and the 858 Quartet
The Palms Playhouse
Sacramento, CA
February 2, 2005

This was guitarist Bill Frisell's first appearance in the Sacramento area in years, and his first ever at the Palms, a venerable folk and blues house. It would be an injustice to describe the performance of this ensemble as an evening of jazz. This music certainly has elements we might associate with the idiom, but the overall impression has more to do with sound, rhythm and color than of conventional jazz forms. And how appropriate, given that most of the evening's compositions were conceived as a musical response to Gerhard Richter's eight paintings "858 1-8."

If you are unfamiliar with Richter's work, he is regarded as a master of "deconstruction" of formal conventions of painting, attempting to express "the inadequacy in relation to what is expected of painting" through his art. He has long been skeptical of conservative and vanguardists alike in their definitions of what painting should be. Could we not use that last sentence to describe Bill Frisell's eclectic directions in music?

Producer David Breskin writes, "What Bill does is perfectly analogous to the way Richter makes abstract paintings. Richter torques the paint; he scratches, he erases, he puts layer upon layer. Frisell plucks a string and puts it through a series of filters, torques it, warps it, varying the attack in all sorts of ways." The eight abstract works relative to this discussion were produced by layering paint on aluminum panels, employing various techniques to scrape or move the paint around the panels. The resulting images are haunting, strange, luminescent and beautiful, much like the music heard this night. Think 20th century chamber music with altered guitar and you would be on the right track.

Frisell's signature guitar sound was present throughout, a combination of clarity, controlled distortion, reverb, pitch bending and other worldly tones. It was fascinating to watch as he consistently adjusted the few electronic components he employed, pointing out that these tweaks are as much a part of his playing as are the strings of his guitar. The other members of the quartet, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Hank Roberts on cello, weaved in, out and around each other against this ever changing guitar background. All employed bowing, plucking and taping techniques to vary their sound, which was without electronic manipulation. Such excellent playing up close and personal proved to be a real treat.

Roberts was particularly impressive, at times functioning as if he were a jazz bassist, laying down intricate plucked patterns, adding drive and dynamics to the music. All three string players relied on charts extensively, which appeared to be thoroughly composed. Yet there was a palpable sense of freedom and improvisation, which I assume is also written into the scores. The performance was subtle without being too subdued, with plenty of intensity evident when called for.

If one were to list the two extremes of this night, it would be melancholy and humor. At times it seemed like sheer chaos, evolving into wondrous textures and sonic innovations. Patterns repeated and melted away. Whirlwinds became still breezes. The audience laughed aloud when prompted by clues to frivolity. This is music for earnest listening, and the Palms venue was an excellent space for the performance. Smiles and eye contact with each member of the quartet were in abundance. It was evident these musicians were having a blast, which translated visibly and sonically throughout the evening. The result was a determined yet homey and intimate feel.

After the last song was played, Frisell thanked the audience for being there and said, "Wow, this is great place to play. I hope you will have us back." Given the two encores and vibrant response from the crowd, I'm sure that the invitation is forthcoming. Highly recommended.

Related reviews of Richter 858 (Songlines, 2005): 1 | 2

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