I always get excited when I go to a concert by renowned jazz guitarist, Bill Frisell. My anticipation is greater for his concerts than those of most other artists because I know each performance is going to include something I haven’t seen before, something that makes me stop and take notice. Each time he goes out on tour it seems to be with an entirely different lineup from the previous one, so the vibe and the music of the whole evening are consistently unique. There is something enticing about knowing you are going to see a one-of-a-kind performance.
Bill Frisell recently performed at the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene, Oregon, and it was an engaging experience filled with melodic mid-tempo numbers, healthy doses of Americana, some jazzy numbers, and even a couple surprises.
Since Frisell’s tunes are strictly musical, it’s hard to know which songs are being played unless you have a keen ear. Frisell doesn’t usually tell you the names of the songs either, so that doesn’t help, but there are worse things. The couple songs I was able to pick out from this performance were “Big Shoe” and “My Buffalo Girl,” both of which appeared on his 1999 album, Good Dog, Happy Man. The first song was given a lively kick, with Rudy Royston’s frenetic drumming and the new harmonic rhythms of Eyvand Kang’s viola created adding new dimensions to the original version of the song. “Big Shoe”’s inherent funkiness was made all the more enjoyable by these facts. And the shuffling, borderline-country stylings of “My Buffalo Girl” were especially augmented by the dreamy tones that came from both Frisell and Kang as their instruments played off each other.
One of the best parts of the evening was watching the looks on the trio’s faces as they played. Royston was constantly looking back and forth between Frisell and Kang (those two faced each other while Royston sat in the middle and just behind them), bobbing his head, breaking into broad smiles and laughing once or twice. Kang—who seemed to be concentrating the most—still swayed rhythmically with the ebbs and flows of each tune, seeming to get more into the spirit of things as the concert progressed. And Frisell had this wonderful, goofy grin on his face as he played and looked from one player to the next. You could tell he was geeking out about every single note that was being played, as though it were a truly wondrous thing to see how each song was being played.
There were two things that were somewhat unusual about this show. Surprise number one: this trio of Frisell’s relies less on loops and spacey sonic squiggles than in other band incarnations. Frisell is no stranger to playing melodic tunes, and he plays them just as well as anybody, but there’s a reason he’s often viewed as an innovator of jazz guitar music—he screws around with things. It is not uncommon for Frisell to spend chunks of the performance playing with knobs and pushing pedals, producing loops and weird sounds that lay the groundwork for an offbeat track to begin. Such quirkiness often leads to intros and segues that last for a couple minutes, leaving some of the audience to wonder what is going on, but there were a scant few of these moments in the concert. This wasn’t a letdown really, but it was unexpected.
Surprise number two: roughly halfway through his new trio’s one hour, forty-five-minute show, the audience learned just how new this trio really was when Frisell informed the listeners that viola player Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston had only begun practicing with each other a few hours before the show. Frisell doesn’t speak much at his concerts, usually no more than a handful of sentences, so this was one nugget of information the audience was pleased to hear. Some people knew he was premiering a new trio on this night, but I doubt many of us had any clue it was this new. It takes some chutzpah to make a move like that, but when it pays off as it did here, it’s nothing short of musical genius.
With this performance, Frisell stayed true to form, giving the audience everything it could have hoped for while still pushing the proverbial musical envelope.