Bill Frisell, Berklee Performance Center, November 12, 2006
If jazz thrives on solo statements, Bill Frisell — one of the reigning kings of jazz guitar — prefers ensemble gestalt. In place of linear drive, he likes cyclical patterns that morph and overlap. Foreground and background merge. At Berklee last night, he unveiled his Unspeakable Orchestra (named for his 2004 Nonesuch release), an octet of violin, viola, cello, trumpet, saxophone/clarinet, bass, drums, and his guitar that he arranged orchestrally. Instead of the usual jazz-band procedure of a theme statement followed by a series of solos over the rhythm section, every section tended to play through the form or dwell on a short melodic pattern. Frisell would state a theme, or just an ostinato riff, a trumpet would enter with a melody, strings with a secondary melody, Frisell answering with his guitar but always returning to that cyclical pattern. Every melody was a rhythm, every rhythm a melody, and the pieces developed slowly, big, cloud-like shapes building up to thunderheads, only occasionally breaking into thunder.
RAIN DANCE: In Frisell’s music, the journey often is the destination.
Sometimes that slowness was maddening — would the rain never come? Tempos were never very fast, but the layered cross rhythms kept things moving. The first tune (“Lazy Theme,” natch) built up from Frisell’s odd guitar patterns over a loop into a kind of country waltz, with the guitarist’s tone getting thicker and thicker. The rain finally came about 20 minutes into the two-hour concert, when Greg Tardy laid a testifying tenor sax solo on a blues over a three-against-four rhythm. He drew grateful cheers. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” provided verse-chorus narrative expectancy. And an uptempo encore of Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” was a hoot: no “comping” here, instead the string section kept repeating the melody while Tardy solo’d over them. When the band played an encore of the Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You,” Frisell was happy to stick with the simple descending melody of the chorus. It sounded like he could play it forever.
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