Fearful asymmetry

By JON GARELICK  |  April 9, 2008

That tantalizing strangeness — the asymmetrical phrasing, the odd tensions in the chords that pulse through the pieces in the voicings of Bley’s piano and Swallow’s five-string electric bass and in the way Sheppard and Fresu navigate those chord changes — belies the surface pop-song familiarity. When she writes a cyclical triple-meter melody like the album’s “Ad Infinitum,” you might wish the deceptively simple tune would go on forever.

Bley marks the turning point in her music as her association with long-time companion Swallow (who also happens to be one of the most important voices in jazz bass). “He started making me play Real Book tunes,” she says, referring to the semi-underground collection of jazz and pop-standard lead sheets that Swallow is credited with helping to create. “He taught me how to play with my left hand — accompanying myself at the piano. I used to double the bass notes or do really stupid things. And he taught me what to do over a period of about a year just playing privately in the basement of my house. That was about 20 years ago. Before that time, I didn’t know what chord changes were, even. I’m sure I wrote chord changes, but I didn’t know what they were called.”

Which is remarkable when you consider that early in her career older composers like Russell and Giuffre were adopting Bley’s work as sophisticated compositions. “It was the opposite,” she counters. “The sophistication happened with learning that conservative way of doing things. Before that, I had a wild imagination, and I wrote down a lot of things without wondering what they meant. Now, I’ve totally changed, and I think very hard about song form and specific changes and the history of music and the history of piano playing in general — who does it, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how could I do it. And of course I can’t do it, but it’s fun to try.”

Another maverick jazz composer, Bill Frisell, came through town a couple of weeks ago. Frisell’s music can seem reticent — so absorbed in the now of itself, the cyclical patterns over a sustained drone, the rhythmless drift of timelessness — that nothing threatens to happen. His work with 858 Quartet would seem to offer the same promise — music inspired by the painting of Gerhard Richter. If Frisell’s sometimes countrified jazz is as broad and open as the Great Plains, then what of music inspired by abstract canvases — color, line, and shape without reference?

The Regattabar show on March 27 — the first of six scheduled sets over three nights at the club — quashed any doubts. This was Frisell the great melodist, the master of egalitarian ensemble interaction, where no one’s role is clearly defined. The music is open, gradual, quiet, and yet it goes somewhere — and takes you with it. The players from Frisell’s 2005 Songlines release, Richter 858, joined him string-quartet-style, seated in a semi-circle: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, and cellist Hank Roberts. There was little of the album’s occasional roar and dissonance. The music drifted slowly into view — some tentative plucking from Frisell, hints of bowed melody from Roberts, the rest of the quartet eventually joining in on melodic fragments passed about, quiet dissonant counterlines, some electronic looping of guitar tones, a siren viola call, more rhythmic throb, Roberts bowing shrilly below the bridge, beating on the strings, and creating a Japanese koto sound in tandem with Frisell.

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