Bill Frisell and the artful power of improvisation

A large crowd (and bar crew) sit in rapt attention as The Bill Frisell Trio casts its evocative spell, in the aptly atmospheric and light-blessed concert space Vivarium, on Tuesday evening. All photos by Dan Ojeda, Pabst Theater Group.

Having awoken after an evocative Bill Frisell Trio concert, a psychic analogue arose, like a forgotten fairy tale carrying you to yonder realms, enchanted yet vivid fantasia of alluring charm, amid shadows of danger, darker forces, and truths.

Wilhelm (Bill) and Jacob Grimm published their first fairy tales in 1817, hoping to find “some essential truths about the common people.” They even had a scholarly readership in mind, though eventually becoming popular worldwide. (Remember “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” etc.”? Of course.)

Similarly, Bill’s trio comprises some of the most popular masters of jazz spell-casting. Especially in person at Vivarium Tuesday, the threesome seemed like tellers of tales mysterious and timeless, with quicksilver and wayward imaginations. Not to search out hidden “parables” in this largely instrumental music. But their sonic scenarios signify much of their artful power. Another recent review called the trio “bewitching.” They offer a few standard songs along the way, to provide signposts of familiarity.

Guitarist Bill Frisell (right) and bassist Thomas Morgan.

But much of the concert was purely improvised. The potent qualities gestate in the moderate-to-slow grooves they mainly work in, as if communing in magic tongues. Often Frisell would pick out a few curious notes that summon a “once upon a time” feel, as bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston add dialogue murmur, following Frisell’s myriad harmonic overtones and quirky phrase-turns, at times slightly venomous, elsewhere whispering sweetly. It’s like a person who really thinks before he speaks, thus fragmenting his sentences into disarmingly uncertain-sounding grace notes. Yet at times the small silences work like perfectly-timed pauses for dramatic or comic effect.

The Bill Frisell Trio; (L-R) bassist Thomas Morgan, guitarist Frisell and drummer Rudy Royston; plays closely but freely, with and for each other. 

This was a high level of artistic playing, just as it contained a childlike level of playing, of odd whimsy, either of which can be subverted at any given moment, creating small wonders and striking suspense. At times Morgan’s bass hung so close in the linear weave to be the guitarist’s breathing counterpoint of charm and tension. These musicians seem to play with and for each other, in the best sense. Royston’s drum set sat sideways, to directly face the bassist, and so master tale-spinner Frisell watched each other closely as the music spun a web of simpatico possibility. 1

The audience, in effect, overhears all this sometimes strange and wondrous creativity. One segment involved a slightly ominous descending line that Frisell hooked into a pedal loop, the instant echoing, which sometimes creates a modal raga effect, for him to musically meditate. And yet here it disappeared after two minutes, just as we began to feel it’s subtle powers. Frisell’s then modulates into a fully-formed melody sounding as familiar as one’s favorite recurring fantasy-dream, then collapses into moody cinematics that few guitarists can reach. 2

All this context occurred after a half hour had passed, and Morgan and Royston had taken the only substantial solos. Frisell possesses a kind of leadership modesty like someone far more involved in being a sonic lab scientist with fellow researchers, than making big theoretic pronouncements. Yet later he charged a sequence of rippling Hendrixian flashes and pungent power chords, in a tough but probing passage also recalling Jeff Beck, and all placed precisely in the unfolding way to truth.

Bassist Thomas Morgan

After a lovely, Charlie Haden-esque bass solo from Morgan, and some dissonant Frisell garlands, the guitarist fired up another loop pattern opening into a floating harmonic flow reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, with a crystalline asymmetric phrase ringing like vintage Jerry Garcia. Frisell’s various foot pedals, including “loopers” for the recorded-repeat effect, form a sort of extension of the creative beast in him. One is called a Jam Pedals Tube Dreamer. Perfect. At times, his innate wandering lyricism finds firmer footing and the band kicks up funk and pulsing R&B sorties.

And then the trio unfurled “Who Can I Turn To?” the haltingly beautiful Anthony Newley melody, with a lyric theme wholly befitting this lost-romantic soundscape traveler. Yet the trio really swung mid-song, lifting the mood. These days, Frisell’s hardly a lonesome cowpoke, and he smiles constantly at his fellows. “You Only Live Twice” offered a different philosophic idea, in a captivating old James Bond theme.

After an encore call brimming vintage Cream City Gemütlichkeit, they came back and played “Shenandoah,” which Frisell has played and recorded so often (and superbly) that you could imagine him tattooed with the title, on his forehead, like a Native American headband. Surely, it’s his favorite theme song.

Like the titular river, the song meandered alluringly, then ended with a couple of Frisell-ish pauses, with grungy fuzz-tone chords, and then a pedal chord — reaching for the Vivarium basement, or the dark mud at the bottom of The Shenandoah.

Frisell marveled, “What a great place! This is the first time I’ve ever been to Milwaukee!”

Count on this beautiful monster returning, as surely as Grimm’s tales echo through the dreams of generations. 3

Bill Frisell speaks to the audience at Vivarium


1 This trio also works in another Frisell project called “When you Wish Upon a Star.” which involves the addition of vocalist and violist Petra Haden, daughter of the great late jazz bassist-bandleader and conceptualist Charlie Haden. Frisell has commented on the project: “I’ve been watching TV and movies my entire life. What I’ve seen and heard there is a huge part of, and is embedded so deeply into the fabric of what fires up my musical imagination. The music we play with this group draws from that deep well and hopefully pays tribute to the countless, anonymous, uncredited, unsung, extraordinary musicians who brought that wonderful world to life.”

2 Another Frisell project is The Mesmerists, a collaboration of the guitarist-composer and his other long-standing trio of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, with innovative film maker Bill Morrison. This project combines the music of Frisell with the films of Morrison “to create musical alchemy…Morrison often combine rare, degraded archival material with contemporary music.  The Great Flood, a collaboration with Bill Frisell was honored with a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for historical scholarship.”

3. Frisell’s sometimes childlike sense of wonder manifested right after he stepped onstage to face the audience. He looked around and said, “Are we gonna keep all these lights on like this?” He then peered up and noticed the eight large skylights extending much of the length of the Vivarium concert space. It’s 7:40 p.m. in Milwaukee, so there’s plenty of friendly sunlight and blue skies still smiling from the heavens.

“Ooops!” he said, chuckling to himself, and his perfectly timed gaffe drew warm laughter from the growing crowd (which reached 276, with some standing-room patrons, a good draw for an act largely identified as “jazz.”)




Ornette Coleman’s first two albums resurface and reveal the “genesis of genius.”

Album review: Ornette Coleman, The Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums (Contemporary)

Prepare to be haunted by a voice. Now, step inside the realm of Ornette Coleman. Few instrumental voices betray their player’s innards as deeply. The person inside that sound, strange to some, became fast friends with me when I first heard it. It’s a voice I’ve always felt close to, every time I hear it again. It tickles a brotherly bone in me, though we’ve never met personally.

That’s one of the rare qualities his saxophone playing evinces. And his mind and soul are on synchronistic display on his first two albums, finally re-issued as a box set on the Contemporary label. You readily hear and feel it all: a huge heart, a natural wit and strong empathy with his fellow players, his rhythm section as true fellows.

Trumpeter Don Cherry, at this juncture, almost as distinctive a voice, unlike any trumpeter you’ve heard. His trumpet tone splatters and smears at times. He sounds like a man talking and singing at once. Part of the singularity of both players was their unusual axes. Ornette’s white plastic alto sax and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet (see photo below).

Ornette Coleman (left) and Don Cherry. Courtesy Pinterest.

Ornette’s sound is conversational and declamatory, but was also controversial at the time, the ultra-avant-garde. Some conventional players thought he didn’t know how to. Yet, he swings marvelously, as do his bandmembers which belies why this sounded so alien to so many people back in the late 50s (or was it mainly certain critics?). Plus, bluesiness also permeates this music. helping immerse it in a grand jazz tradition even as he’s like nobody you’ve ever heard.

Ornette’s “Genesis of a Genius” re-issue box set is available in CD (upper left) or vinyl LP.

The music is artistically direct, but never simplistic. Coleman said “Let’s play the melody not the background,” suggesting his one big step beyond conventional chord changes (after the first album here, he jettisoned piano in his groups, though much later added electric guitar). However, pianist Walter Norris on the first album comps with suitable harmonic ambiguity and solos with boppish elan.

Drummer Shelly Manne, who plays on the first album, once said Ornette’s saxophone “is the sound of someone laughing and crying.” Ornette’s voice is also one of the most amiable I’ve heard on a horn in a long while and here the voice and style are fully formed on his first two albums.

The tune “Compassion” is reflective as much as an outpouring of feeling with a sense of wry irony within the sound of suffering. So he creates his own substantial “background” straight from his melodic soul.

This reissue is especially a find, a revelation, because these two were over-shadowed by his ensuing series of superb albums for Atlantic Records, now collected in a 6-CD box titled Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. That collection reveals Ornette’s full flowering as a composer, with a number of now-classic tunes, including “Ramblin’,” “Lonely Woman,” “Una Muy Bonita,” “Peace,” and the epic 37-minute “Free Jazz,” with a “double quartet” that included Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard.

If you love that stuff, or still tread through it with uncertainty or curiosity, you ought to hear where it comes from. That’s Genesis of Genius, this Contemporary set. The compositions are well-crafted but not as maturely as the Atlantics. And one technical complaint: Don Cherry’s trumpet is sometimes too low in the mix so it’s then difficult to hear his full phrasing on his solos. But his quite audible extended solo on “Angel Voice” is a buoyantly lesson in amiable, accomplished boppish storytelling.

“Lorraine,” on the second Contemporary album Tomorrow is the Question!, is a languid, yearning yet witty ballad that ought to be a classic. Akin to the soon-famous Atlantic ballad “Lonely Woman,” it’s titled for the late pianist Lorraine Geller, “because she was a wonderful piano player,” Ornette explains in the liber notes. Don Cherry notes correctly that drummer Shelly Manne’s all-brushes solo is “as musical as drum solo can be.”

Try this out:

As for “When Will the Blues Leave?” Answer: When the song is over. This catchy creation sounds like players blowing the blues away, with the resilience of their spirit and the wit of their musicality.

“Turnaround” has a sort of bluesy insouciance that makes you smile inside and out — you want to tuck it into your hip pocket as a tune, like a goodly handful in this compact box set, to scat-sing to yourself. Cherry’s solo is more audible here and delightful in its sly goofiness, yet very smart.

Vintage, seminal modern jazz, this set deserves a wide audience. This horn voice among jazzers, is right up there with Miles, Lester Young, Stan Getz, John Coltrane…


This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: