Bill Frisell quartet review: Risking freedom

Jazz ensemble's creative, sometimes chaotic concert demonstrates the necessary risks and resulting rewards of musical liberation

by DANIEL HEILA

Freedom is a thing to be shared. Something to be held together, watched over, nurtured, maintained, oiled, tweaked, and crafted. Disciplined, committed, passionate performers of jazz (and all its offshoots) know that the freedom inherent to the art form is something larger than their participation, has its own life, is a force to be reckoned with, an entity that permeates the circumambient social atmosphere and charges everything it touches with a sense of oneness, of being in a current, of having a momentum, of belonging and mutual respect. Some of these musicians bring a humble leadership to the care and feeding of the genre’s freedom. They understand the importance of power-with, have a gifted sense of how to bring out the best in others, know that the most effective leadership is by example. Yet  they can shine on their own and hold the weight of decision and move and act for the goodwill of others.

However, freedom often spawns imbalance, or chaos. A truly gifted leader neither represses nor concedes in the face of chaos but trusts freedom’s way to forever seek equilibrium and cohesion. Pull your foot off the brake while skidding in snow, let the vehicle go where it needs to go; it will right itself.

Chamberlain, Haden, Frisell (L-R) at The Shedd.

Morgan, Chamberlain, Haden, Frisell (L-R) at The Shedd.

Bill Frisell is such a leader: a gifted instrumentalist who moves through and between disparate, contrasting communities of musical style, fostering artistry in every project he undertakes and who creates environments where collaborators can shine. The Seattle guitarist’s collaborators for last week’s performance at Eugene’s Shedd Institute (a stop on his tour of his latest release, When You Wish upon a Star, a tribute to the lasting appeal of TV and movie music) seemed an oddly matched lot: self-conscious, nervous, uncomfortable, stoic. Yet each one gave themselves up to their unique gifts: drummer Matt Chamberlain disappeared into his doggedly supportive, spontaneous, and shimmering participation (he had never played the set list until that night); bass player Thomas Morgan’s stunning right and left hand techniques pulled colors and textures, with endless sensitivity, from his beast of an instrument; and vocalist Petra Haden’s antisocial, alt-rocker vibe was shattered by the warmth, sensuality, and astounding range of her instrument.

As they crafted the freedom that exists between master musicians, and as they let it swell into the hall, and as the audience sat, energized, Frisell pushed, pulled, responded, directed, pulled back, all the while smiling and glowing with appreciation—a leader entirely dedicated to his cohorts and the audience who completed the evening’s performance.

The band’s opening tune, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River,” ramped up like a turntable tone arm etching the first few scratchy grooves of a much-loved vinyl LP. A moment of awkwardness between bassist and guitarist doing a “which chord works with which voicing” exchange — Morgan’s left hand grabbing at missed options as the changes rolled by, Frisell trying not to second guess—each trying to follow the other’s lead, led to smiles and the breaking of ice. Haden arrived and slipped into the scratchy grooves with a tentative entrance. This was not comfy Andy Williams, this was world class musicians shaking out the kinks. Free to find their place, to take the time necessary to give the evening their all.

From the start, it was clear that the arrangements were loose, that the structures allowed room for stretching and response to the moment. This is the freedom that I look for in jazz influenced performance and improvisation (and an environment that Frisell is noted for): a synergistic environment that borders on free improvisation. In such an atmosphere, artists rely not only on years of hard practice and dues paying but, perhaps most importantly, on their intuitive response and ability to listen to their partners. A true expression of effective anarchy.

In the second tune (Ennio Morricone’s “Once upon a Time in the West”) Frisell and Morgan improvised a duo that Chamberlain joined a bit later. At first, there was no tune, just cohesion. Haden arrived on the scene with a slightly peevish entry to a sinuous vocalise. Battling a cold and concentrating hard, she was not quite present in the hall, but her intonation was spot on and she knows how to use a microphone. An eerie heterophonic (many voices, same tune) section followed, each voice bringing their unique qualities to a common tune. Let freedom ring? Indeed. Even in the case of a snotty nose.

Chamberlain on drums and Morgan on bass formed a tight responsive rhythm section throughout the night, weaving safety nets that allowed Frisell to take risks and Haden to ascend to the heights. Frisell’s ability to simultaneously solo and comp (accompany another player) created more egalitarian improvised structures and forms that involved the whole band. His use of effects never overpowered the ensemble rapport and the variety of tones pulled from his guitar were always in service of the arrangement and not for simple effect.

The band’s arrangement of Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” was vaporous, the accompaniment barely held together, like the forms of passersby seen through a rain-streaked diner window. Haden opened up here, supporting her notes to the last of her breath, nailing the melodic leaps with a toss of her head. “Alfie” has an iconic modulating (moving from one key to another through a series of chords) turnaround on the words “something even nonbelievers can believe in” that never fails to darken my heart in the best of ways; Haden delivered the line with such lyrical honesty I had to put my face in my hands. Wow.

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For the album’s title track, “When You Wish upon a Star,” Frisell pulled out a tiny music box, stripped of its casing. This he wound up and held against his guitar strings as it plucked out its Lilliputian melody. The guitarist captured this sound in his looper (a device that repeats sampled sounds) creating a fragile, crystalline sound sculpture. He had pulled the stars down into the concert hall. The song played out over a slightly sinister background haze: Chamberlain setting his cymbals alight, Morgan pulling remarkable colors and textures from his bass. Toward the end of the tune, Haden gave in to her frustration with her cold and hammed it up a bit, holding a note too long, confusing the band. “I just ruined the song!” But Frisell would have none of that. “No,” he assured her from the side. “No you didn’t.” The train-wreck ending that followed was priceless; the musicians were laid bare, made vulnerable, their unity obvious in their response to disunity. The audience couldn’t have been more pleased. Sometimes wishes don’t come true, and sometimes that’s just fine.

After moving through several more selections from the album, Frisell called it quits, but not before the audience pulled the band back out for two encores: a lyrical, respectful version of “Shenandoah” where nothing fell as it should, but that was OK; and “Goldfinger,” complete with campy vocal stylings, an all-out, rafter-shaking performance by Haden and another glorious, train-wreck of an ending, with Haden caterwauling her victory over influenza.

The Shedd institute enriches the musical culture of Eugene by offering an institutional front that allows audience members, who may not venture out to hear such music in smaller venues, to step out of their comfort zone to experience more challenging, and fulfilling music. Frisell-and-company’s freely crafted, sound-sculpture versions of these well-loved songs created an experience unique to the venue and the night’s audience. Such a powerful expression of freedom and demonstration of leadership truly does give unbelievers something to believe in in troubled times.

Daniel Heila writes songs, shoots video, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene.

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