Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Guitar Goddess Mary Halvorson Plays an Epic Double Album Release Show

There was a point Monday night at the Poisson Rouge where guitarist Mary Halvorson landed on a disarmingly disconsolate four-chord phrase and then ran with it, methodically and gracefully, for longer than she did with any other idea throughout two sets onstage. She doesn’t typically go for the jugular until she’s built up to it, but this was different. Square in the middle of the fretboard, on the middle strings…on an vintage acoustic guitar miked through the PA. Meanwhile, flutist Robbie Lee wafted further and further behind her, realizing that it was the most gorgeous moment in a night that would be full of them.

By the end of the second set, a duet with Bill Frisell, Halvorson had gone back to her hollowbody Gibson electric – and played with a slide. Her brooding, flickering solo was a subtly potent payoff in the wake of a long series of gently keening incisions, Frisell providing a backdrop of warmly wistful pastoral riffs. She’s hardly known as a slide guitarist – this, and the rest of the evening was a message that she’s even more of a polygon than anybody knew. Does she have a Rickenbacker twelve-string stashed away behind the 19th century harp guitar she employed for much for the first set? After almost two hours of a fairly radical departure from her usual enigmatic intensity, that wouldn’t be a surprise.

Some acts make a whole tour out of “album release shows.” Halvorson packed two into one night, celebrating duo releases with both Lee and Frisell. After watching the first set, her album with multi-high-reedman Lee seems to be more composition-oriented than its liner notes indicate. And her set with Frisell, rather than being a high-voltage summit meeting between two of the three greatest jazz guitarists alive, was more introspective and casually conversational. But that made sense, considering that the two guitarists’ new album The Maid with the Flaxen Hair salutes Johnny Smith, one of the godfathers of pastoral jazz.

Goodnaturedly and judiciously, Frisell played second fiddle to his younger colleague, a clinic in spare, purposeful, lingering folk-inflected fills. There were a couple of points early on where he went to his trusty loop pedal while Halvorson went warp-crazy with her octave pedal for some collegial messiness before regrouping for pensive, wistful melody. Otherwise, he gave her a wide berth to indulge in a lot of sarcasm before she pulled back on the pedal and used it for bent-note plaintiveness rather than bizarre space lounge sonics. When they got to Walk, Don’t Run, Frisell seemed poised to leap into the surf, but Halvorson went for restraint instead. Frisell has done a lot of duo work lately and this was a typical example in peak subtlety.

Halvorson’s set with Lee was as allusively haunting as the one with Frisell – a connoisseur of noir, by the way – was warmly tuneful. Although Lee also ceded centerstage to her, his Middle Eastern chromatics and quavering microtones behind her steady, modal single-note lines were exquisitely chosen. Playing the harp guitar – an acoustic predecessor of double-necked Spinal Tap excess – she hammered on the open bass strings and picked out delicate melody against them, sitar-style. Mixing in tense, clenched-teeth tremolo-picking, she held the crowd rapt with her resolutely unresolved rainy-day chords as Lee built a gentle mist in her slipstream.

Frisell’s next appearance is on Sept 23 at the Pacific Jazz Cafe as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

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September 19, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Clinic in Tunesmithing and Improvisation From This Era’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist

Albums that combine state-of-the-art tunesmithing with similarly rapturous improvisation are rare. That’s what Bill Frisell does on his latest release, Music IS, a solo recording streaming at Spotify. His previous album, Small Town, was a similarly spare, low-key set, recorded live at the Village Vanguard with bassist Thomas Morgan. This one’s even more intimate, a master class from this era’s greatest jazz guitarist. Or maybe, considering that Frisell has never limited himself to jazz, it’s time to consider him as this era’s greatest guitarist, period. Americana has been an important part of his catalog for decades, but on this album it really comes to the foreground. He’s in the midst of a long stand at the Vanguard this month, with sets at 8:30 and 11. Today and tomorrow, he leads a trio with Morgan and the great Rudy Royston on drums. Then on the 20th, the three add add violist Eyvind Kang.

At a time where every six-string player with fast fingers and absolutely nothing to say seems to be going into jazz, Frisell stands out even more. He can play lickety-split when he wants, but throughout his career, his songs tend to be on the slow side. This album is a clinic in how he does it, just guitars and Frisell’s trustly loop pedal.

The songs are a mix of new ones and stripped-down versions of older material. The standout among the album’s sixteen tracks is Change in the Air, a somber, plaintive, Britfolk-tinged pavane, Frisell methodically building lingering rainy-day ambience around a simple one-five bass figure. Like most of the other tracks, it’s over in less than three minutes.

Go Happy Lucky comes across as a minimalist collage based on the old blues standard Since I Met You Baby. In Line, which could be an electrified John Fahey tune, begins with a lusciously chiming vintage soul progression, then Frisell deconstructs it using every wryly oscillating, floating or echoing patch in his pedal: is that a twelve-string effect, or the real thing? Likewise, is that an acoustic that Frisell’s playing on the subdued, spare oldtime folk-style ballads The Pioneers, or just his Tele through a pedal?

Sometimes Frisell’s loops are very brief; other times he’ll run a whole verse or chorus. Kentucky Derby has one of the longer ones, a very funny juxtaposition of distorted roar and flitting upper-register accents. He expands very subtly on a stately oldtime folk theme in Made to Shine, then artfully makes a forlorn, abandoned, Lynchian ballad out of a purist Jim Hall-like tune in Miss You.

Another ballad, Monica Jane is more spare and lingering, Frisell turning up the tremolo and spicing it with the occasional tritone or chromatic riff for distant menace in a Steve Ulrich vein. There’s also a punchline, a long one.

In Pretty Stars, Frisell stashes a simple, twinkling two-note riff in the pedal, then makes soulful country gospel out of it – lots of history and a little mystery at the end. Rambler follows the same formula, in this case a surreal wah-wah figure that completely changes the mood from pensive to bemused, compared to the alternate take included as a bonus track at the end of the album.

Frisell salutes iconic bassist Ron Carter with a stark, saturnine theme, part 19th century spiritual, part Wayfaring Stranger, with a little Wes Montgomery at the end. The album’s most anthemic track is Thankful: methodically crescendoing with burning, distorted, bluesy leads. it’s the closest to rocking the hell out that Frisell does here. Although the simmering miniature Think About It is pretty loud too.

The album’s most wintry number is What Do You Want, again bringing to mind Steve Ulrich and Big Lazy in pensive mode. A blues with uneasy ornamentation, Winslow Homer has a similarly surreal cinematic feel. All this is another notch on the belt for a guy who might have made more good albums than anybody else over the past thirty-five years.

March 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic, Haunting Jazz Guitarist Bill Frisell Plays a Rare Duo Show in Brooklyn

Bill Frisell’s first album as a bandleader was just guitar and bass (and lots of overdubs). Who knew that this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist would ever revisit that format? Almost thirty-five years later, the bassist is Thomas Morgan, and the album, Small Town, is a live recording from the Village Vanguard from just a few months ago It’s hard to hear online, but you can catch the two when they make a relatively rare Brooklyn appearance at Roulette on June 30 at 8. Advance tix are just $20, and having seen Frisell in this particular borough, it’s not a safe bet to assume that the show won’t sell out.

The first track is an eleven-minute version of Paul Motian’s Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. Resonant, starry, minimalist motives give way to a distantly ominous big-sky theme spiced with wispy harmonics and Morgan’s lurking presence. A wistful waltz develops and is then subsumed by  brooding pedalpoint with stark gospel allusions as Frisell builds a hypnotic web of contrapuntal loops. If this doesn’t end up in a Twin Peaks episode, that would be criminal.

The two make a briskly caravanning stroll out of Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee, threatening to take it down into the depths but never completely submerging. Morgan hangs back and punches in gingerly throughout most of the spacious, uneasy ballad Song for Andrew No. 1 (an Andrew Cyrille shout-out). Referneces to a famously infirm New Orleans funeral tune flicker amidst Frisell’s lingering single-note lines as he waits til the very end to go for the macabre.

He does Wildwood Flower a lot – this one offers genially blithe, bluegrassy contrast and some neatly understated counterpoint between the two musicians. 

The title track expands on the old Scottish folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme, Frisell finally flinging some noir and some wryly muted surf riffs into the purposeful, steady walk as Morgan straddles the same thin grey line. After that, the two pulse their way mutedly through Fats Domino’s What a Party; which sounds a lot more like the old folk song Shortnin’ Bread. Ironically, it’s the most pastoral track here – hearing Morgan toss off a handful of C&W guitar licks on his bass is a trip.

Poet – Pearl is a diptych. Morgan shifts around with a pensive incisiveness in the upper midrange, as he usually does throughout the set while Frisell plays a gently tremoloing lullaby of sorts. then the two follow the night’s most divergent courses, segueing into the lone Morgan composition here, a bittersweetly catchy jazz waltz where the bassist finally gets to carry the melody. The last song of the set is a spare, lowlit, increasingly desolate take of the Goldfinger theme that leaves no doubt that it’s about a spy. At the end, Frisell turns it into the old blues lament Baby Please Don’t Go.

Where does this rank in the Frisell pantheon? Maybe not on the towering, harrowing noir pinnacle with, say, 2007’s History, Mystery but it’s close. You’ll see this on a whole lot of best-of-2017 lists, not just here, at the end of the year.

June 28, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Uneasily Beautiful Album from Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell has a new album out, Big Sur. It’s Pacific Coast pastoral jazz commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist joined by his quintet: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston. This may be the sunnier side of Frisell, but there’s a persistent unease that recurs throughout the album: lively and lithe as much of this music is, it’s deep. A couple of themes and variations are interspersed throughout a mix of songs that don’t miss the bass: in places, Frisell’s guitar loops or Roberts’ pizzicato carry a bassline, others don’t address it. Where that happens, the songs make tremendous practice pieces for bass, a challenge to match the minimalism and focus of the rest of the band.

There’s a dancing West African-flavored theme. There’s also a stately march with a considerably more apprehensive edge, moving from the emphatic Going to California with its warm, major-key jangle anchored in overdubbed lows with hints of noir, to the jaunty but wary strut and close harmonies of Gather Good Things, to the spare, understated title track. Highway 1 may be an elegant Sunday drive in one of Jay Leno’s old Pierce-Arrows rather than a hotrod theme, but again, Frisell grounds a persistent eeriness in the low registers: by the end, the funky beat has given way to a sway and a low roar.  The most gripping, and characteristically Frisellian track here might be Shacked Up, with its ambling, blues-tinted, almost cruelly surrealistic Lynchian Pacific Northwest atmosphere.

But there’s humor here too. The Big One has Frisell and the strings doing a tongue-in-cheek faux Ventures impression. If you want to hear Rudy Royston almost play a surf beat – he refuses to completely Mel Taylor it – this is for you. We All Love Neil Young is a playful homage to Shakey’s catchy folk side, Scheinman getting the lead line. And Walking Stick (for Jim Cox) is Frisell at his most jovial and carefree as the band switches up the meter from a ballad to an oldfashioned C&W stroll.

Other highlights include the lively, cinematic Hawks, a syncopated English reel of sorts; Cry Alone, which is more steadily reflective than plaintive; the swaying folk-rock Song for Lana Weeks and the closing track, Far Away, with its unexpected grit and ambiguity barely beneath its windswept terrain. Here, Frisell finally allows himself a few bars’ worth of a solo that quickly tiptoes into the shadows. Where does this fall in the Frisell pantheon? Somewhere in the middle, which makes it one of the best albums of the year.

July 2, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment