[7 May 2009]
Bill Frisell’s appearance at the Boulder Theater was part of local jazz station KUVO’s “Jazz Appreciation” concert series. It’s easy to be irritated by this sort of thing—the idea that jazz is something to be “appreciated” and “preserved” rather than simply listened to and enjoyed. When the series was announced, I cringed, reminded of being told as a child to eat my vegetables: “Appreciate your jazz, honey. It’s good for you.” I know that KUVO’s heart is in the right place, but damn, I wish they’d come up with a better name. Especially since they’ve got such a killer lineup of shows. Dr. Lonnie Smith, Bill Frisell, McCoy Tyner, and John Scofield all in one month? That might not seem unusual for, say, New York City, but for Boulder it’s an embarrassment of riches. What the hell—let’s appreciate some jazz.
This evening, Frisell’s musical companions were interestingly made up mostly of Colorado-born players, like the guitarist himself: Ron Miles on trumpet, Rudy Royston on drums, and Tony Scherr on bass. You can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for any rhythm section Frisell plays with, since he regularly performs in a trio setting with verifiable jazz living legends bassist Ron Carter (Miles Davis, virtually every great jazz musician of the last 60 years) and drummer Paul Motian (Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett). But though they may not be marquee-worthy names, all three of Frisell’s accompanists have logged plenty of hours with the guitarist—Miles in particular has been playing with him for more than two decades now. The bond this quartet shared was crystal clear at the Boulder Theater.
The set began in an eerie, abstract fashion, with Scherr sawing away at the upper register of his bass, Royston tapping irregularly on the cymbals and Miles moaning strangely through his horn. Frisell, meanwhile, busied himself with some kind of device that made his guitar sound like a dying music box. The audience leaned forward, shifted uncomfortably in their seats—was this what the entire show was going to be like? But soon, Frisell began picking a familiar ascending riff out of the mist—Thelonious Monk’s old chestnut “Misterioso”. It’s a tune Frisell knows well—it kicks off the excellent Sound of Love album, which he recorded with Motian and saxophonist Joe Lovano back in the mid-‘90s. But the guitarist seemed to enjoy finding new ways to approach Monk’s sly, deceptively simple melody—when Frisell hit on a sequence of particularly sweet notes, his face broke out in a mischievous, delighted smile. Dressed in a sportscoat and an un-tucked button-down, the gray-haired guitarist could have easily passed for an economics professor at the nearby University of Colorado—but when that smile erupted, he resembled nothing more than a kid playing hooky from school. “Misterioso” ambled along pleasantly past the ten-minute mark, with Miles taking a satisfying, breezy ride over the changes. The trumpeter might not be the most adventurous of players, but every note he played was filled with gracefulness and taste.
The remaining songs took the arrangement of “Misterioso” as a template: An abstract, somewhat “free”, intro flowing gently into a familiar—or at least hummable—tune. One of them, with its loping folk rock beat and chiming guitar chords, even sounded a bit like the Grateful Dead once it got going. Perhaps Frisell just knows his audience—play anything vaguely resembling the Dead in Boulder and you’re practically guaranteed a standing ovation from at least a quarter of the audience. Frisell got his, that’s for sure.
The only misstep of the evening came during the quartet’s encore. Frisell and his band spent a long time building this one up, with the guitarist noodling out a familiar folky refrain line that threatened to turn into both “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. But it was neither. It was actually “This Land Is Your Land”, Woody Guthrie’s anti national anthem. All well and good, but once the song had been established, Frisell and company turned it into a rather turgid and tedious affair, squeezing every drop of life out of Guthrie’s simple melody. To make matters worse, they followed it up with a similarly lifeless rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “What The World Needs Now”, which felt like an overly clever wink at the audience. Oh well, the band had proved its mettle in its main set, giving the audience plenty of jazz to appreciate.