Bill Frisell sure knows how to keep busy, which is great for fans of his uniquely amazing jazz / blues / Americana / unclassifiable style of guitar playing. By surrounding himself in the ensemble setting with other skilled veterans, Frisell manages to helm some compelling projects, and this one is no exception.
The music performed by Bill Frisell's Big Sur Quintet was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival and composed by Frisell during a stay at Big Sur Land Trust in Monterey, and an album was released last year. The quintet includes Eyvind Kang on viola, Rudy Royston on drums (Kang and Royston also, along with Frisell, round out Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers, whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform last summer), as well as Jenny Scheinman on violin and Hank Roberts on cello (Scheinman and Roberts have also worked with Kang in Frisell's 858 ensemble, ).
Of the many Frisell projects I've enjoyed, Big Sur sees him taking a bit more of a back seat in comparison; much of the material performed by Big Sur is led by the other stringed instruments, and surprisingly little of Frisell's otherworldly technique is showcased. This patience on Frisell's part shows up in the seemingly telepathic way that the group attacks its improvisation, functioning as a singular unit and approaching the themes cohesively. See above and below for short clips of Big Sur Quintet's music from this show.
Frisell, as always, is perpetually touring, with shows coming up over the next few months from coast to coast. January and February have him on the West coast before returning to NYC in mid-March for more Beautiful Dreamers shows at Village Vanguard.
My first time at Village Vanguard, which makes me feel foolish seeing as how frequently Bill Frisell plays multi-nite residencies at this famed venue. Also, embarrassingly, this would be the first time I'd seen Frisell in any capacity since the Tonic days (!), when I saw him perform with his 858 Quartet and John Zorn at a benefit for bassist and longtime collaborator Kermit Driscoll
To me, the music of Bill Frisell somehow manages to incorporate many disparate elements which make American music great. You have all different manners of jazz, warped and mutated blues, huge, sentimental major key anthemics, Copelandesque optimism, and fearless improvisation, often all within the same album or project. Not to mention Frisell's is the most unmistakeably gorgeous guitar tone I've ever heard.
Despite not arriving until just 15 minutes before set time, and with what looked like a full room (capacity 123), I wound up seated literally as close to the stage as physically possible, mere feet away from the hi-hat. (A large support beam stood directly in my line of sight, effectively blocking my view of much of the drum kit, which mattered little considering I was planning on spending the majority of the show rockin' out with my eyes closed.)
In Beautiful Dreamers, Frisell is joined by legendary composer / performer Eyvind Kang on violin, and uber-talented drummer Rudy Royston. I first heard Kang on the Bill Frisell Quartet album, which featured him not only on violin, but tuba as well. I've checked out a few of Kang's projects throughout the years as I've become aware of them, and although I'm far from an expert on his oeuvre, the diversity between his different projects is incredible, including but not limited to avant-garde freakouts, classical scores, soundtracks, and choral pieces, in addition to more grounded, "typical" sounding jazz.
The evening's first piece reminded me quite a bit of the "Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming" / "Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine" pair of songs from Frisell's excellent Blues Dream album - gorgeous, anthemic, and unabashedly sentimental. This segued into a 12-bar blues which reminded me a bit of Phish's version of "Jesus Just Left Chicago," with excellent, tasteful soloing from Frisell.
The second piece was reminscent of some of Frisell's more atonal, itchy work (not as spooky as Richter 858, but more on par with his Quartet project and the Angel Song project to which he contributed), and the rest of the set drifted through several different styles and nimble workouts, with noiser, abstract-sounding stuff butting up against gorgeous doo-wop-derived melodies and bluesy excursions. The set closed with an impressive take on The Beatles' "In My Life," with Frisell and Kang taking three separate stabs at the song's iconic harpsichord solo; once with Frisell alone, once with them mirroring each other, and once with just Kang.
During the set, Kang proved the perfect foil to Frisell's minimalist style, alternately soloing with abandon, mind-melding with Frisell and doubling his parts on some very complex passages, and occasionally providing a steady rhythmic backing with his rich plucking style. And Royston played the holy hell out of his kit, unafraid at times to totally dominate each of the sonic ranges available to him at various points.