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Guitars In NYC: Fred Frith, Frank Zappa, Jonathan Richman, Robert Cray, Lenny Kaye, Bob Mould, Frank Marino, Jim Hall & Roky Erickson

Martin Longley By

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Fred Frith
The Stone
October 30, 2010

In the old days, when English guitarist Fred Frith lived in New York, locals could bask in his constant presence on the scene. Following this 14 year period, from 1979, Frith moved to Stuttgart in Germany, and has now been teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California since 1997. On his way to a performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England, he stopped off in NYC to play two sets at The Stone.

The first of these was a duo with the joint's owner John Zorn. The small corner-space had reached capacity long before its 8pm start-time, so the pair decided to begin early, at around 7.50pm. Not surprisingly, the tense chemistry between Zorn and Frith produced improvisations that were mostly constructed from curt, sudden bursts, gaggling emissions and violently curtailed phrases. The two improvisers almost became as one, uncannily knowing when to cease abruptly or continue a statement that the other had started. Or echo and sustain a particular tone. This is a notable Frith gift: the way he would catch onto the tail end of a Zorn gargle/choke/hack, matching a floating note to decay into the otherwise quiet space. All the while, balancing pressure on his two foot-pedals, to shape volume curves. Occasionally, Frith and Zorn both seemed to apply this technique whilst responding to stray honks or siren sounds outside the venue, keeping in tune with their lingering resonances.

Near the start, a disruptive argument to the rear of the room caught Zorn's glaring attention, creating a pause, then heightening the duo's equally belligerent re-commencement. Zorn made a rare return to using a detached mouthpiece, almost re-visiting his old duck-calling days. Frith prompted melodic riffs at several junctures, Zorn rapidly responding. There was an almost cartoon slapstick, a joy of bodily sounds as Zorn buzzed his lips, sucked his horn and showered the front row with spittle. Then, the mood would scythe into ragged aggression, with Frith sculpting contained distortion and Zorn blasting out the contents of his mind's ruptured stomach.

Zorn always seems to to be watching the clock. Come 8.30pm, the twosome were off downstairs. They returned to acknowledge the enthusiastic response, but resolved not to play another piece. Yes, their music is a compacted delicacy, but for an audience who had patiently lined up around the block and paid $20, this was a remarkably brief set. We savoured it while we could.

Frith's 10pm solo set was a more relaxed affair. Not that its music was in any way bland, but it was free to stretch out with a logically linear development, rich with layers as Frith sampled textures, sketched figures and juggled rhythmic clunks. He's one of the most sensitive guitarists that a person can ever hope to witness. There's a complicated relationship between picking, stroked floating, percussive striking and volume manipulation that results in a total soundworld that almost becomes removed from its source. This is at the same time as it being the absolute embodiment of all that is the guitar, inside the wood/metal body'n'strings, and extending outward to the abstractly amplified ether. The entire piece seemed like a suite, as each characterful section segue-ed into another. Frith was dropping metal containers onto the strings, then dangling small chains to create rumbling panoramas. At one stage, he was pouring what looked like lentils from one container to the other, setting up a repeated percussion pattern on the amplified string-stage. He would use paintbrushes, attach clips, glide glass, employ an e-bow, all in the name of electric orchestration. Although very different from the earlier set, it was seeing Frith alone that impressed the most, facilitating a complete immersion in his very unique guitar-world.

Project/Object with Ike Willis & Ray White
B.B. King Blues Club
November 1, 2010

Just like a classical new music concert, but at fifty times the volume: Project/Object made a swift return to B.B.'s, presenting their ongoing dedication to/replication of the Frank Zappa songbook. The towering guitarist and composer provides the sole reason for this band's existence, but they are never overtaken by musty nostalgia or precious rigidity. Zappa's music is presented with fire and forcefulness, spontaneity and extremity. 2010 has been a year out on the road. Between their last appearance at this club in early January [also reviewed by your scribe on AAJ], they have been touring the USA and Europe, and now the climax has almost arrived in this very club, with only a handful of dates to follow. Tragically, 2010 has also seen bandleader André Cholmondeley's wife Cheri Jiosne lose her two year battle with breast cancer. The guitarist dedicated this gig to her memory, and indeed the entire tour.


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