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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Live Review: Bill Frisell Transcends Space, Comes Down to Earth at Yoshi's

Posted By on Wed, Jan 28, 2015 at 1:27 PM

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Bill Frisell
Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015

Bill Frisell is a transcendent guitarist. I don't mean just that he erases lines between genres, or that his unparalleled technical facility matched with his tendency to loop himself live seems to exceed the limits of what one man can or should be able to do with the guitar at any given time — what I mean most is that his music is just moving, sonically unique, emotionally and intellectually inspiring.

I am a fan, if that is not obvious. And also a science fiction enthusiast, so imagine my excitement when Frisell announced a "Guitar in the Space Age" project. Bill Frisell! In space! Finally! (The Americana twist might throw you, but watch an episode or two of Firefly and you'll understand the attraction of the cowboy/astronaut aesthetic.)

  Rarely is wish fulfillment this direct. To my brief disappointment, it turned out the project isn't so much ascending space soundtrack as mining the american guitar cannon of '50s and '60s, but hell, that still sounds amazing, so off I go.

The show starts just a few minutes late (jazz time), at Yoshi's in Oakland (now back to it's rightful place as the Yoshi's). Now, I love Yoshi's. I've seen some of the most impactful concerts of my life here: the Wayne Shorter Quartet in 2008, Dr. Lonnie Smith in 2009, Michael Formanek in 2011. The first time I mistakenly thought I was in an earthquake after moving to California was when Amtrak rolled by during a set here. So when I apologize for the terrible photographs with the excuse that I could not physically leave my seat (nor move my legs) without disturbing the four to five people in the immediate square foot surrounding me, I hope you understand it is with fondness. I understand, having been to the Village Vanguard in New York, that cramped quarters are a venerable jazz tradition, but every time I come here I think there must be a better solution. The answer is always just on the tip of my tongue, along with some variety of sushi and/or whiskey.
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In any case, Frisell is joined by his longstanding and phenomenal rhythm section: Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollensen. The quartet is rounded out by Greg Leisz, another master guitarist and pedal-steel aficionado who has been playing with Frisell off and on for about 20 years.

My first impression is that this is a band playing songs. Now, that might sound like a painfully banal observation, but hear me out: There was a time when going to see Bill Frisell meant watching a rhythm section expand on a groove, while the leader took whatever material they were playing so far out into the stratosphere that the laws of physics themselves seemed to change. Now, the guitarist seems to have come down to earth (somewhat ironically, considering the tour title). This is not to say that any of his interpretations of these tunes are at all like the originals, or even that they're restrained — they're just more focused on the songs than the player or the exploration. And I have no complaints about hearing one of the world's greatest musicians play songs, there's just a sense that the focus has shifted slightly since his earlier days.

Frisell and his band only stop between songs a few times during the whole set, choosing instead to segue seamlessly from one nostalgic tune to another, each time offering the audience a chance to delight over instant recognition of a classic melody. The first transition, going into the Byrds' hit "Turn, Turn, Turn" (written by Pete Seeger), just cements the general bliss of the whole show. After that it's just home run after home run. By the fourth or fifth tune, the audience is completely locked in to every move the band makes.
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Hearing Liesz in conversation with Frisell is a guitarist's dream: Two masters of the instrument (or instruments, including the pedal-steel guitar), playing effortlessly off each other, Leisz's complete mastery of the country/blues tradition only serving to highlight the utter individuality of the guitarist on the other side of the stage.

The band's blistering take on "Cannonball Rag," a fingerpicking country tune made famous by Merle Travis, is a late-set highlight, as is "Surfer Girl," by The Beach Boys, during the encore. Even when playing very simple parts, the rhythm section is so locked in and so musical that you wonder why more songwriters outside the jazz tradition don't hire Scherr and Wollensen to make their records.

Frisell doesn't speak to the crowd until the end of the set, and he doesn't really even look out at the audience while he plays, choosing instead to face his band the whole time. Some might find this off-putting, but I find it quite charming: Here is a musician who is focused on making music, and on communicating with the other people on stage in order to make music together. And when he does turn to address the crowd, the (admittedly generally good-natured) heckling from the room, whether  song requests or declarations of love, is honestly a little much, and makes me understand why he would choose to focus on the band rather than the unpredictable audience.

In his brief remarks before the encore, Frisell addresses this choice of orientation, saying with a twinkle in his eye, "I have a nice ass, and you've been staring at it for an hour and a half. Not many people get to do that." Au contraire, Mr. Frisell; I think many audiences have had that opportunity. Their ears always benefit from it.

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Micah Dubreuil

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