Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Art of Bill Frisell Live at City WInery in Atlanta

Thomas Morgan, Bill Frisell and Rudy Royston at Atlanta's City Winery
This past Wednesday night, April 4th, at Atlanta’s City Winery the world class guitarist and innovator Bill Frisell and his trio thrilled a nearly full house of faithful followers, aspiring guitarists and a few curious uninitiated listeners with an unforgettable night of music. The Winery can accommodate over three hundred in the confines of its comfortable, sonically pleasing wine cellar-like atmosphere. Frisell just released a fabulous solo album titled Music Is on the Okeh label on March 16, 2018.  On this night Frisell was joined by Thomas Morgan on upright bass and Rudy Royston on drums.

The now sixty-seven-year old Frisell has been playing his distinctive style of guitar for the better part of three decades. He signed to Manfred Eicher’s ECM label back in the early eighties and became the virtual house guitarist for the label. He has had long term associations with the eclectic experimental composer/saxophonist John Zorn from his early days in New York. In the early 2000’s he was a part of the influential drummer Paul Motian’s trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano. The list of collaborators he has worked with is a who’s who of the contemporary and avant-garde music world during the last quarter century. Along the way Frisell has developed his own unique sound- a mix of bluegrass, country, surfer rock, Americana, jazz, fusion and sophisticated electronics- that has made him one the most adventurous musicians and a sought-after collaborator. His work has been nominated for a Grammy on four occasions in 2005, 2009, 2016 and 2018 and he won once for Unspeakable in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category for 2005.

The Guitarist Bill Frisell at Atlanta's City Winery 
Bill Frisell has the casual appearance of a disheveled, absent-minded professor, with his shock of white spiky hair, horn- rimmed glasses and his loosely fitting jacket and jeans. You could see this guy working part-time fixing motorcycles in a neighborhood garage or repairing old radios in his basement, but when he plugs in his Telecaster-style guitar and connects to  his array of electronic wizardry he becomes a master of the universe. The universe of the sound that he so deftly creates.

The guitarist started off with a series of harmonics, tones generated from his guitar that resonate with sympathetic frequencies. He is master of harnessing them to great effect and he used them to introduce the Henry Mancini classic “Moon River.”  The audience listened intently as he conjured up a delicate repeating motif on his guitar, looping it and then harmonizing to it. When the melody became apparent the crowd let out a collective sigh of acknowledgment.

One suspects that Frisell’s trio mates must have big ears to play with this man as his playing appears to be snatched from the ether, rather than firmly pre-planned. Morgan has been playing with Frisell since 2016 and they recently did a highly acclaimed duo release last year titled Small Town. Royston is a sought-after drummer whose work can be heard all over the gamut. His stylistic approach was first heard with Frisell on the guitarist’s 2010 Grammy nominated recording History Mystery. Together these three musicians showed just how empathetically connected three people can be, responding as Frisell utilized a series of surprising electronic embellishments to create cascading effects before transitioning into the familiar theme from the James Bond thriller “You Only Live Twice.”  He has a penchant for creatively using looping to allow him to create multiple layers of expression on a repeating motif.

Frisell’s repertoire often features movie soundtracks and on this evening besides the aforementioned “Moon River,” and the Bond theme “You Only Live Twice,” he later played another Bond theme from the movie “Goldfinger” to the delight of the audience. His surfer sounding guitar resonating clear, concise lines as the memorable melodies hung in the air like wisps of smoke from Bond’s lethal Beretta.  The man wastes no motion in his playing. He is a quiet leader that directs in an unobtrusive, firm but nuanced manner. Morgan’s bass is clear and resonant, and Royston is a master of delicate shading.

The group continued with a walking blues, which might have been Frisell’s “Winslow Homer,” which the guitarist played in his own fractured way, with Morgan and Royston each being featured on solos. The group went onto a more ethereal sounding piece, a rambling waltz that was reminiscent of the late John Abercrombie’s work. Interestingly Frisell was a highlight performer at a memorial concert held for the recently deceased guitarist at Brooklyn’s Roulette on March 26, 2018.

No jazz concert, although that is too restrictive of a title for Frisell's work, would be complete without at least one Thelonious Monk song. Frisell and company didn’t disappoint, doing their own take on the quirky “Epistrophy.”  Here the group was at its most intuitive, perhaps because of the familiarity of the song, but it was marvelous to watch the exquisite interplay, especially between Frisell and Royston who operates without bombast. The drummer created a jungle beat that added surprising rhythmic interest and an inherent sense of swing. Morgan had one of his most creative solos of the evening.

The real surprise of the evening  was Frisell’s marvelous take on the John McLaughlin classic “Arjen’s Bag.” Later renamed “Follow Your Heart,” from Mclaughlin’s 1969 album Extrapolation; Frisell played this on his own album, Ghost Town, from 2000. To hear Frisell’s take on this guitar classic some nearly fifty years later was a true treat, bringing me back to when guitar virtuosity was my idea of true greatness. The guitarist’s introduction cleverly hinted at the song before revealing his true intent. Royston played timely rim shots as Morgan plucked away creating the atmospheric feel of the song authentically. Frisell employed some distortion and echo to his guitar before he went into the song’s distinctive lead in. I had never heard anyone do this “live” and for me it was just so good to hear it played again with such creative energy and inspired tremolo and electronic effects.

The band continued with one of Frisell’s own compositions, this one played with phaser effects titled “it Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” which is on his last release Small Town with Thomas Morgan. It is a song that has a nostalgic feel to it, one that you might hear coming from a guitarist, albeit a very good one, sitting on his front porch musing away the late afternoon. Frisell plays the sing-song line like the repeating verses of a melancholic nursey rhyme. His footboard of electronic wizardry produces sounds that at times mimic a harpsichord or perhaps a mandolin. Then he takes it to another level, accelerating the pace, developing it into a rhythmic jig of sorts, playing in a style that to my ears had native American elements to it, before returning to the main theme. An impressive display of what seem to be on the spot improvisation on a theme.

Transitioning into the theme from “Goldfinger,” Frisell recreated that echoed, twangy guitar on the John Barry composition that Shirley Bassey made famous. It was pure fun listening to this master explore this movie classic.

Frisell disengaged from his guitar and took to the stage, introducing his bandmates in his own inimitably folksy way. In a brief humorous interlude, he warned the audience of the excesses of eating locally made Maple Bacon ice cream, which he said gave him the sniffles.

After unrelenting applause, the band returned for an encore with what Frisell called his theme song, the Americana standard, “Oh Shenandoah.”  This poignant song, a lament from one that longs for a return to home, was the perfect vehicle for Frisell to spin his magic. His guitar took on multiple tones each one more expressive than the last as Morgan and Royston played the cadenced march like a mournful dirge. But Frisell is an optimist, and he skillfully transitioned from the somber Shenandoah into the uplifting Burt Bacharach composition “What the World Needs Now,” ending the show on an encouragingly upbeat note. The audience was completely taken by this wonderful performance. As a fellow audience member stated to me, Frisell takes you to another place.

The City Winery should be applauded for continuing to up its game, providing a comfortable, inviting and sonically pleasing venue and booking world class musicians like Bill Frisell to perform here in Atlanta. Hopefully people will respond accordingly and continue to support this premier music venue.

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