This was the concluding part of a two night jazz giant double header.
After seeing the incredible performance that Donny McCaslin put in at Ronnie Scott’s on Sunday (read about it here), Monday’s gig was a slightly more sedate affair at the Jazz Cafe in Camden.
Despite being sixty six years old, Bill is an energetic presence on the jazz scene. He has over 200 sessions behind him during a long career. In the last year alone, he has played on Charles Lloyd’s Blue Note LP “I Long To See You”, Andrew Cyrille’s ECM offering “The Declaration Of Musical Independence”, Cuong Vu’s “Ballet” (on the same RareNoise label as the Jamie Saft/Iggy Pop collaboration which I wrote about here) and his own duet with Thomas Morgan on ECM, “Small Town”. I’ve heard them all and they are, without exception, superb.
It was the latter album that seemed to most inform the Jazz Cafe gig. Playing in a trio with Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, it drew on some of the recent ECM material but opened up beyond the duet format on the “Small Town” LP. Both veterans of the New York avant-garde jazz scene, Scherr and Willesden have played with Tom Waits, John Zorn, Wilco’s Nels Cline and Norah Jones, either individually or together. They’ve also recorded and toured with Bill too, notably on the John Lennon covers project “All We Are Saying”.
Here’s their version of “No 9 Dream” and “Come Together”, supplemented by a pedal steel from Greg Leisz, which at gives you a flavour for how they perform together.
Bill’s fondness for reinterpreting other people’s music takes us on to another strand of the evening, which is Bill’s interesting choice of cover versions. He’s clearly got a thing for Bond themes at the moment. The “Small Town” LP features a great version of “Goldfinger” and last night we got “You Only Live Twice”. It was a gorgeous rendering of it, with Scherr and Bill swapping the string motif between them (you know the one – the riff that Robbie Williams used for “Millennium”) and punctuated with a shard of sound generated by the cymbal being scraped. We also got a beautiful version of Bacharach and David’s “What The World Needs Now”, which highlighted Bill’s ability to harmonise with himself, almost acting as his own string or horn section.
In the current issues of Downbeat Magazine, Bill talks about his musically formative years. He absorbed the rock’n’roll and pop of the 60s – the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks and also the in-vogue guitar instrumentals such as “Telstar”. This was evidenced in his recent “Guitar In The Space Age” LP but also in his choice of covers last night. He isn’t snobbish in respect of where he borrows from.
In the same interview, he tells the story of being a teenage about to see the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery at the Red Rocks Arena. Unfortunately Wes died just before gig but Bill and his dad went anyway, catching Cannonball Adderley and Thelonius Monk instead. The door to Bill’s jazz career was hence blasted open.
It was the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death so the boys had an impromptu crack at “Giant Steps”, which Bill immediately apologised to JC for some fluffed moments. It was the one part of the evening where it felt that the band were having a better time than the audience, with Frisell grinning like a Cheshire cat. I think on reflection, he’d earned his indulgence.
There was one lovely moment when the lead to Scherr’s bass went on the blink. He fiddled around with his set up and then managed to get an alternative lead to use. All the while this was happening, he wasn’t getting stressed. Frisell and Wollesen kept up a groove and then when the bass player was good to go, the rest of the players brought him back into the fold, like a domestique returning his team leader to the pelaton.
The evening opened with an almost Tuareg like Malian delta blues. Ali Farke Toure would have been impressed, his template groove stretched by electronics. This was a common thread with the Donny McCaslin gig. Frisell combined sublime technique, shifting the melody up and down half steps, with a use of guitar effects that felt natural. This wasn’t flashy or treating his sound as a novelty. The difference in tone served the music. Bill used it as a jumping off point for his revisit of Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago”, another highlight of the latest ECM release.
For all of you guitar nerds out there, here’s Bill fooling around with his pedals. Get me to my man cave!
This melding of influences was most visible on “Small Town”, taking a chunky folk country melody and adding the Frisell harmonics and loop effects. It was beautifully done. Frisell’s tone moved from clean, through reverb to fully distorted but never to the detriment of the music. He seemed to channel both Charlie Parker’s bebop and Scotty Moore’s picking in the final encore.
Bill seems to be in the mood just to keep going. He has moved back to New York with his wife, artist Caroline D’Inverno. There is a new film portrait which has been released in the USA and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it over here. The clip below shows you the breadth of of his talents, especially the many genres he can turn his hand too. Bill’s gentle soul shines through too.
And I’m hoping that he’ll carry on making his diverse, vibrant, beautiful music too.