Bill Frisell: Music for Strings

Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson

Few could have known that a little bit of serenity was being created somewhere above New Briggate, Leeds, this evening.  Certainly not the squawking gaggle of scantily-clad women at the taxi rank, nor the diners behind the steamy windows of nearby Thai and Japanese eateries.  Those who had decided to build bonfires and launch fireworks this evening were even more removed from the tranquillity of the intimately exploratory performance given by Bill Frisell and his quartet at the Howard Assembly Room.  Music for Strings brings together the sprawling beauty of Frisell’s jazz guitar and the experimental strokes of violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts for two sets of abstract soundscapes, familiar melodies and sonic improvisations.  It’s a show that takes as much from the contemporary classical world as it does from the world of jazz and is, without a doubt, a treat for any self-respecting listener.

Considering that Bill has hardly had a night off over the last year, performing with The Bad Plus, Harmony, Thomas Morgan, the Bill Frisell Trio and alone in locations such as America, Australia, Poland and Spain, it’s entirely forgivable that the renowned guitarist would begin tonight’s concert in the wrong time signature, a mistake that Bill later acknowledged with equal candour and humour.  Despite the slight wobble in synchronisation, the twinkling opening to Bill’s self-penned “Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine” from his 2001 album Blues Dream led to a stunningly filmic soundscape of birdlike viola trills, organic creaks and crunches on violin and a melody with a quintessentially American flavour.  Even Bill’s quartet of cuddly moose, leaning nonchalantly against one of his amps, seemed enamoured by the performance.  The first half of tonight’s concert continued in much the same vein with an exquisite reading of “The Pioneers”, another typical slice of Frisell’s scenic Americana, this time from the 1999 album Good Dog, Happy Man, as well as a hypnotically groovy rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, complete with stabbing strings, Hank’s charismatic walking cello bass-line and Bill’s evocative blue notes.

In the second half, the quartet’s repertoire offered up some more familiar melodies whilst retaining a seductive enthusiasm for experimentation.  The Bill Evans/Miles Davis composition “Blue in Green” saw the muted trumpet and softly-trod piano notes of 1959’s Kind of Blue replaced with stirring violin/viola harmonies and serene guitar chords.  A technically astonishing reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” highlighted not only Frisell’s celebrated dexterity but also the unflagging ingenuity of Hank Roberts whose cello was pushed to its limits throughout tonight’s performance.  The set was concluded with a boldly refurbished version of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now”, whose timeless melody took on a notably mesmerising nature via the repetitious jabs of Kang and Scheinman’s bows.  It was simply too good a performance to abandon and a delightfully energetic rendition of the theme to “Bonanza” was coaxed from the quartet via a very welcome encore.

Bill Frisell has offered his fans some jaw-dropping music during his thirty-five year career thanks to his continued insistence on pushing boundaries.  From his long association with John Zorn, through his experiments with soundtracks to the films of silent movie legend Buster Keaton, right up to his more recent re-imaginings of the music of John Lennon, his country music outings and exquisite handling of film and television themes on his 2016 album “When You Wish Upon a Star”, Bill has maintained a wide open mind as well as a compassionate handling of his material.  His work with Scheinman, Kang and Roberts provides another intriguing stratum in Frisell’s constantly evolving career and those of us who were in attendance at Leeds this evening can count ourselves lucky to have been there.