Review: The Space Age Bill Frisell in London




David West tunes in and drops out with Bill Frisell's vision of surf guitar at The Barbican as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival 2014

Bill Frisell presented something of a contradiction with his return to the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican. For someone who so obviously loves to play music, his discomfort as a stage performer was readily apparent. He sat in, unannounced and unheralded, with the opening act Sam Amidon, composed of Amidon on vocals, guitar and banjo alongside Chris Vatalaro on drums and electronics.

With his folk repertoire, Amidon was an odd choice for this event and, despite Frisell’s nimble accompaniment, he seemed overwhelmed and delivered a curiously passionless performance. There was a bizarre attempt to impersonate Chet Baker scatting, in which Amidon didn't get within spitting distance of the high notes, and he had to stop and start over with one song when he began it in the wrong key. This might fly at an open mic night, but was subpar for a platform of this stature.

Returning after the intermission with his own quartet, Frisell concentrated on material from his latest album, Guitar In The Space Age, paying homage to the six-string heroes of the 50s and 60s. Aside from a hasty introduction of his band-mates at the outset and a brisk "thank you" at the conclusion, Frisell displayed a remarkable aversion to engaging with his listeners. He spent the entire set facing bassist Tony Scherr across the stage, offering the audience only his profile. Particularly with instrumental music, it was frustrating to be denied access to the workings of Frisell’s fretboard, but the man was not for turning.

The set was a measured one as Frisell prefers to let the music simmer rather than come up to the boil. Even a hot-blooded surf classic like Dick Dale’s Pipeline was kept gently rolling along rather than loaded with rocket fuel. Duane Eddy’s Rebel Rouser was given an elegant swing while Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn benefited from the inventive playing of drummer Kenny Wolleson who opened up new avenues for Frisell to explore by changing his dynamics and instrumentation on the kit. Greg Leisz impressesd whether he was at the pedal steel or on guitar and his thick, bluesy lead work in Messin’ With The Kid provided an earthy counterpoint to Frisell’s more ethereal tone.

Scherr had the most limited role, generally sticking to playing the root notes under Frisell's and Leisz’s melodies but as he leaned forwards like a sprinter waiting for the starting pistol, he never took his eyes from the bandleader. The surprise in the set came in the form of an expansive arrangement of John Barry’s Bond theme You Only Live Twice, which doesn’t appear on the album.

Given the simplicity of some of these songs in their original form, Frisell’s ability to gently coax them into new shapes was impressive, although the quieter moments were in danger of becoming the sort of unobtrusive music played in hotel lobbies. An enjoyable, chilled-out set from the veteran, even if it never became enthralling. And someone please tell Bill to turn around.

Photo by John Watson


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