Bill Frisell 858 Quartet/NeWt
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20th November, closing night of LJF 2011. Review by Chris Parker)
‘A refreshingly irreverent sound … lurching between unravelling riffs and molten improv’ was the festival programme’s description of NeWt’s music, and in their 40-minute set guitarist Graeme Stephen, trombonist Chris Grieve and drummer Chris Wallace did their best (in spite of an unhelpful sound balance which muffled Stephen’s guitar and transformed Grieve’s electronically modified lower notes into a foggy boom) to provide just that. Stephen favours lengthy, spiralling lines, played for the most part at quickish, often accelerating tempos over Wallace’s probing drums; Grieve brings welcome textural variety to the band sound by utilising electronic gizmos to make his instrument mellower, less brassy than is customary in soloing passages and almost electric bass-like in accompanying roles, so NeWt’s overall approach is both original and imaginative, and their shortish set provided an intriguing appetiser for what must be an absorbing live act, given more accommodating circumstances.
Bill Frisell formed his 858 Quartet a decade or so ago to play compositions responding to an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of the work of German artist Gerhard Richter, a process the guitarist describes as ‘just trying to absorb emotionally, in my own way, what was happening in the paintings’, and the band produced a Songlines album, Richter 858, in 2005 that contains not only an autoplay slideshow of the relevant paintings but also scrupulously detailed liner notes including the thoughts of producer David Breskin and Frisell himself. Ten years on, Frisell has re-formed this quartet, which features the violin of Jenny Scheinman, the viola of Eyvind Kang and the cello of Hank Roberts alongside the leader/composer’s electric guitar, to play music composed in Vermont in autumn 2010 and documented on Sign of Life (Savoy Jazz, 2011).
The later set of music, although still conforming in the main to Breskin’s original brief (‘No banjos for Richter! Anything that would have had a vernacular feeling would have been anachronistic’), is none the less quintessential Frisell: deceptively simple in its approach (many pieces explore a short, repeated sequence of chords, the various members of the quartet emerging in turn to perform brief solos before returning to the ensemble), but containing all the subtle, swooning melancholy, its roots in everything from country music, blues and folk to Ives and Copland (often referred to as ‘Americana’), for which Frisell is famous. Given the mutual familiarity of the various quartet members (Frisell has been playing with Roberts since 1975, Kang since the viola player was a student in Edmonton, Sheinman since 2000), it was no surprise to find the music privileging delicate interaction, felicities of tone and timbre, over ebullience or showiness; quiet, slow-burning power was the order of the day, neatly illustrating John Cage’s nostrum, quoted in the notes for Sign of Life: ‘We should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.’ Such a concentration on internal respectful attentiveness did have an inevitable drawback: over a 90-minute set, the music did occasionally stray into self-absorption, but this was triumphantly dispelled by a crowd-pleasing encore, one of John Lennon’s finest songs ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, performed with brio yet great sensitivity to its nostalgic emotive power.
Frisell is on record (literally – his latest recording is All We are Saying …, a 16-track exploration of the Lennon songbook) as a great Lennon admirer – ‘the songs are part of us. In our blood’ – so this encore brought both the concert and the London Jazz Festival to a singularly appropriate conclusion.