BILL FRISELL is a man who’s done many things with many people, crossing into and over (and at times blurring) the lines of lush soundscapes, modern American composition, hyperactive noise onslaughts, straight-up jazz, and telekinetic improvisation. If he was a blood type, O positive would the category most appropriate. After finding out about this performance at the last second (well, a couple of days prior), I made arrangements with a friend to check out the live action, where Bill would be accompanied by viola player extraordinaire EYVIND KANG and drummer RUDY ROYSTON.
Kang’s playing is somewhat known to me, as I’ve got one of his many NADE releases, and have heard his contributions to such musical pranksters SUN CITY GIRLS and SECRET CHIEFS. Providing the propulsion was Royston, who unlike Kang did not perform on the latest Frisell History, Mystery release. For unknown reasons, this Cambridge date would be the only appearance of Kang on the 2009 tour. The evening started out with Bill acknowledging a gift laid down on his chair by an anonymous donor, an Obama lollipop as a reminder of today’s inauguration. After a few words, he sat down behind his music stand and despite the presence of written notes, the skittering spidery leads and somewhat atonal runs were more akin to a full-on free session, with Kang and Royston cautiously following. This gradually morphed into a sweet Southern melody, and from then onward the playing stayed more to the melodic side, rather than being a pebble in the shoe.
Though the band were barely mic’d and amplified, sometimes their playing was almost thoroughly drowned out by the clinking of glassware and ice cubes from the back corner bar; people were craning necks and pricking ears to catch the delicate sounds coming forth. Royston in particular had a very light hand and was deftly shadow boxing with goose down gloves; a very smooth touch on the ride cymbal, some restrained brush work, on occasional clack on the drum rim. As the set moved on from a calypso-style song, Frisell took a bit more command, and led the way down dark alleys and odd turns with exacting finger work and modal chords, culminating in a locked-horn session with Kang, each laying down synchronous riffs that Gorham and Robertson of THIN LIZZY would have been proud to call their own.
Later on, a delicate exquisitely crafted web of thin notes from Frisell hung in the air, gently wafting in the air before quietly disintegrating. Kang played likewise, with very thin, feathery leads a marked contrast to the consistently rich tone he’d been playing all night. Suddnely an ominous open lower E string drone rang forth from Frisell, and for a moment I half-expected a clothing change into a brown monk’s robe and doom metal a la SUNN O))) but instead another curveball was tossed to the crowd, and the main motif from the Star Spangled Banner was recycled several times. The only material from the last record I recognized was brought on towards the end of the set (also the highlight of set), with the West African melody of “Baba Drame” filling the room, and Frisell flashing smiles left and right.