London Jazz Festival: Bill Frisell

Fred Grand reviews the Bill Frisell 858 Quartet and the Scottish trio NeWt at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20 November 2011

Bill Frisell 858 QuartetWith a triple-header of big names to choose from, the 2011 London Jazz Festival drew to a close this evening. I could have opted for Ornette Coleman or Hermeto Pascoal and been guaranteed a rousing send-off, but as soon as I saw this year's programme there was never any doubt that my choice would be the quiet genius of Bill Frisell. With his unique blend of American folk and classical sources, his is exactly the unique and instantly recognisable voice that separates jazz from other musics.

As a hand-picked UK support act, up and coming Scottish trio NeWt made a pretty good match to the headliner. Their busy and eclectic music is not too dissimilar to Frisell's JMT excursions of the 90s with Paul Motian and Joey Baron. Guitarist Graeme Stephen shared the frontline with trombonist Chris Grieve, while drummer Chris Wallace was seemingly locked in a perpetual solo. Grieve's trombone doubled as a bass with some clever electronic manipulation, and it'd be hard to imagine Stephen playing in quite the same way without the legacy of Frisell. It was an incident-packed 40-minute set and the crowd would certainly have demanded more had their urge to get to the main event not prevailed.

And so we now came to the 858 Quartet, named after the series of eight abstract paintings by German painter Gerhard Richter that inspired their debut recording. Old friends all, they found an obvious chemistry and retained the name to become a regular working project. Cellist Hank Roberts goes all the way back to the beginning of the guitarist's first forays into Americana, and although viola player Eyvind Kang was barely recognisable from the man I regularly used to see in the 90s in various "Downtown" bands, he now knows Frisell's world almost as well as Roberts. Violinist Jenny Scheinman is by comparison a relative newcomer, but of late her classical techniques and emotional grasp of Frisell's music have made her a constant presence in his music.

Tonight's show was in support of their stunning new album Sign Of Life (Savoy, 2011), which couldn't be further away from the rather forbidding and sometimes cold abstractions of their eponymous debut. A false start due to a mixing-desk malfunction drew a rather flat quip from Frisell about a three-legged dog, then the music began. The first surprise was to see the guitarist clutching a Fender Stratocaster, but I imagine that he could play a ukelele and still sound like Bill Frisell. If you don't know the album, this music is perhaps best described as extremely midwestern. In a fabric woven from many strands of American folk musics drawn from beyond the world of jazz, he formalises his influences into a compositional style which draws on 20th-century American composers including Copland, Adams and Reich. Even more than with the superb Disfarmer project (Nonesuch, 2009), this group have refined the sound and turned it into a natural vehicle for improvisation.

In some respects a guitar-led string quartet, the group has a very chamberish approach. Arranged on stage in a horseshoe formation, they made their way through a compelling set of off-kilter blues, country picking, campfire songs, minimalist loops and the most gorgeous tone poems you could wish to hear. It was exquisitely arranged, a deceptively high level of craftsmanship belying the music's apparent simplicity and directness. Melodic lines seem to converge, wrapping around Frisell's solo flights. Each of the string players of course got a chance to solo, and Scheinman's velvety tone didn't yield in even the most earthy of bluegrass fiddle breaks. A gifted improviser and bandleader in her own right, for many in the audience she would be the evening's big revelation.

With two encores (including Strawberry Fields from the recent Lennon tribute album), this richly varied and absorbing music was a joy from first to last. In a festival that has also brought us singer Alison Krauss & Union Station, some may question the broad view of jazz as a strain of US folk music. Yet there's no doubting the current influence of Americana on everybody from Brad Mehldau to James Farm. Of course Jimmy Giuffre's The Train And The River of the late 50s is an important antecedent, but with Frisell it feels as though we're finally seeing the logical conclusion of that early homage to rural America. It may yet become his lasting legacy, as it quietly continues to renew and enrich the vocabulary of jazz.

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