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Shape & Texture - Bill Frisell at Wellington Jazz Festival

Shape & Texture - Bill Frisell
at the Wellington Jazz Festival

Howard Davis

Photo credit Stephen A’Court

The Wellington Jazz Festival continues to attract jazz luminaries from around the globe. In the past two years we have been privileged to hear Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and Wayne Shorter's quartet. This year, we're privileged to hear three more stellar performers - Bill Frisell, Dave Weckl, and Dianne Reeves. There are always murmurs of 'Hendrix' whenever a new electric guitarist of more than modest inventiveness appears, but they are generally exaggerated. Frisell's early playing was actually closer to Frank Zappa's and Larry Coryell's licks-based and treatment-heavy style, but whereas Coryell was never a genuine synthesizer and Zappa remained firmly rooted in heavily-orchestrated rock, Frisell boils every resource down to usable blocks. Despite his experiments with stylistic hybrids, combining disparate elements of jazz, blues, and country, he has developed en entirely individual voice. His eclectic examination of Americana has incorporated Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, Charles Ives, Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan, and Madonna. Abstract shapes, elegant dissonances, and tuneful miniatures share the resonant familiarity of the melodies in Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid. Despite the slight sententiousness of some of his music, Frisell never attempts to debunk or satirize - and however concerned he is with textures, he concentrates on exact figurations of brief and complex melodic shapes, out of which whole pieces grow organically. With repeated hearings, it is these shapes which leave a lasting impression.

Frisell was born in Baltimore in 1951, but spent most of his youth in Colorado, studying clarinet with Richard Joiner of the Denver Symphony Orchestra and continuing his musical education with Johnny Smith at the University of Northern Colorado. His original guitar teacher was Dale Bruning, with whom he released the 2000 album Reunion. After graduating, he attended Boston's Berklee College of Music, studying with Jon Damian and Jim Hall, whose clean picking style clearly had a lasting influence. In Premier Guitar magazine, Jason Shadrick stated that "It could be argued that the jazz guitar tree is rooted in four names: Django [Reinhardt], Charlie [Christian], Wes [Montgomery], and Jim [Hall]". Frisell is a worthy successor in that august lineage.

Frisell's major break came when guitarist Pat Metheny was unable to make a recording session and recommended him to Motian, who was recording Psalm for ECM Records. He became ECM's in-house guitar player, working on many albums, notably Jan Gabarek's Paths, Prints, and his first solo release In Line. He became a member of ECM stablemate Paul Motian's groups from the early 1980s until the drummer's death in 2011. Motian's final album as bandleader was The Windmills of Your Mind, featuring Frisell and singer Petra Haden, daughter of much-missed bassist Charlie Haden. In the 1980s, Frisell lived in the New York City area and was an active participant in the downtown music scene. He forged a creative partnership with John Zorn as a member of quick-change band Naked City, and performed and recorded with many other experimental and avant-garde jazz musicians. During this period he also became well known internationally for his work in Motian's trio, alongside saxophonist Joe Levano.

In 1988, Frisell moved to Seattle and made two of his best-reviewed albums: Have a Little Faith, an ambitious survey of Americana, from Ives and Copland, to John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, and Madonna (a lengthy, psychedelic-tinged version of Live to Tell); and a complementary set of original compositions This Land. During this time he contributed to Ryuichi Sakamoto's Heartbeat, and also started performing soundtracks to Buster Keaton's silent films with his trio. In the mid-1990s, Frisell disbanded the trio and initiated his adoption of more explicit elements of bluegrass and country music. His friendship with Gary Larson led him to provide music for the TV version of The Far Side, released on the album Quartet along with music written for Keaton's Convict 13. In 1999, he was commissioned by Minneapolis' Walker Arts Centre to compose Blues Dream, later recorded for a 2001 release on the Nonesuch label. Also in 1999, he released The Sweetest Punch, featuring a seven-piece ensemble that reworked tunes from Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's Painted from Memory.

Since 2000, Frisell has focussed on folk, country music, and Americana, using an array of effects to create unique sounds from his instrument. From 2003-05, he was musical director for Century of Song (a series of concerts at the German Ruhrtriennale arts festival) inviting artists such as Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Arto Lindsay, Loudon Wainwright, Vic Chestnutt, Van Dyke Parks, Buddy Miller, Ron Sexsmith to perform their favorite songs in new arrangements. 2003's The Intercontinentals, seamlessly blended American roots music with Brazilian, Greek, and Malian influences, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. He won Best Contemporary Jazz Album for Unspeakable in 2005. Frisell collaborated with Matt Chamberlain, Tucker Martine, and Lee Townsend in the exquisitely experimental Floratone band in 2007. His 2008 album History, Mystery was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group in 2009. Also in 2009, he recorded DisFarmer, and entire album inspired by the eccentric photographer Mike Disfarmer, and featured in a duet rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah with singer-songwriter Sam Shrieve. The following year he started working with the Savoy Jazz label, for whom he recorded Beautiful Dreamers and a second release of Sign of Life. In 2011, he offered interpretations of John Lennon's music in All We Are Saying, and his latest album, Small Town, was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York, where Frisell recently relocated.

Photo credit Stephen A’Court

The Wall Street Journal described him as "the most innovative and influential jazz guitarist of the past 25 years," while The New York Times said "It's hard to find a more fruitful meditation on American music than in the compositions of guitarist Bill Frisell. Mixing rock and country with jazz and blues, he's found what connects them: improvisation and a sense of play. Unlike other pastichists, who tend to duck passion, Mr Frisell plays up the pleasure in the music and also takes on another often-avoided subject - tenderness."

On the evidence of his opening night at the New Zealand Jazz Festival, it's hard to disagree. Frisell presented songs from the Grammy-nominated When You Wish Upon A Star, an album of sweetly dark and dreamily re-imagined soundtrack music that combines favorite memories with less well-known moments of movie and TV magic. Accompanied by Thomas Morgan on double bass and the astonishing Rudy Royston on drums, Frisell and vocalist Petra Haden managed to imbue familiar themes with a fresh sense of drama - from the disturbing menace of The Godfather and Psycho, through the heartbreaking romanticism of Alfie, Lush Life, and Moon River, to two brushes with John Barry (You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger). His single-note lines were at times loaded with enough reverb to sink a battleship, while at others they explored more abstract territory - but Frisell is too melodic to linger there for long, with a mellifluous and seamless legato evocative of Jerry Garcia and Peter Green at their most lyrical, rather than the tersely acerbic angularity of Derek Bailey. It is this astonishing range - from lines of sinuous dexterity to chunky power chords and elegant avant-garde experimentation - that makes Frisell one of the most exciting and unpredictable guitar players around.

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