|Left to right: Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston|
(Big Top, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 6th May 2012. Review by Jon Turney)
Bill Frisell’s 90 minute set made me smile. A lot. This has happened before. The Cheltenham set had all the hallmarks of what I think of as his mature style, which emerged, I guess, from the late 1980s. He makes good-humoured, open-hearted music, hinting broadly at cheesiness but with an implied knowing wink. So we began with his trademark mid-tempo countrified lopes, all rural twang and gently snapping drums. In this trio, the spooky mythical-American dreamscape is filled out by the brilliant viola of Eyvind Kang, wholly sympathetic to Frisell’s affectionate eclecticism. The viola (not violin) range is vital. Viola in the lower register, pizzicato, creates an interweaving bass line. Viola bowed, upper register, soars with the guitar.
Both lean into simple melodies, but adapt them freely with jazz elaborations. Both like the occasional freakout, aided by Rudy Royston, whose drumming ranges from pattering grooves to a whiplash ferocity which would make you lean back if the seats in Cheltenham’s impressive new Big Top allowed it (they don’t).
The freakouts are pretty freaky. I was hearing more shades of Sonny Sharrock than usual tonight, I think. The effect can be startling: as if Chet Atkins suddenly threw out some death metal. Sometimes, like the whiff of cheesiness, it isn’t clear whether this is tongue in cheek – but done with such verve, who cares?
That facility to switch fluidly between modes and moods, with equal commitment to each, is part of the fun. As ever, Frisell is a master of guitar effects, and a cunning user of dynamics. There is never a dull moment. Critically, you could probably write a book about a Frisell set. Dichotomies abound: Urban/rural, simple/complex, traditional/avant garde, tonal/atonal, primitive/postmodern, genre/pastiche would all get a chapter. My take is that he makes elements of the avant garde palatable for those who might not partake, mainly through being warm and approachable, sharp and spiky by turns. But never too much of either. The audience understands: we may be going quite far out from safe territory here, but don’t worry, there will be another great tune along in a minute.
Tonight’s great tunes included Misterioso, with its nursery-rhyme quality emphasised by the two string players, a bebop tune played more or less straight, a piece with a distinctly Ornette Coleman-like twist. Oh, and a ridiculously over the top Strawberry Fields near the end. Heroic synthesis or mish-mash? I’m not sure. But it was hugely enjoyable. And in large part, I think, because while Bill-the-guitar is a big beast who shows teeth and claws, he is basically a pussycat.