Part of the vast Portland Jazz Festival‚ this Bill Frisell concert started out with an introduction of how the band had been delayed at JFK that very morning‚ and what a long and arduous journey they had been on in the past 24 hours. Most in the crowd were thus expecting a potential condensing of the billed 2-set gig‚ but instead the softly-spoken master craftsman came on stage and led his bandmates in nearly 3 hours of melt-away jazz‚ ending at 12:45 AM.
The first set was labeled as "Not So Fast: The Music of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant." Speedy and Jimmy's fast‚ country jamboree was centered around the legendary sounds of Speedy's pedal-steel‚ so Frisell's slowed-down versions of these songs likewise focused on Greg Leisz on pedal-steel. They were so centered on Leisz in fact‚ that Frisell was mostly just playing backing rhythm the entire time. But in case you didn't know‚ nobody on this planet can fill a pocket like Bill Frisell. His use of space is something 99.9% of all other guitarists lack the discipline to hold to‚ and it makes the tone of simpler songs sound deep and enormous. The humorous smiles between himself and Leisz made the light attitude of these tunes even clearer to the crowd‚ but many were obviously anxious for something deeper to strike. Near the end of the set the novelty began to run thin‚ and the crowd grew a bit restless with each subsequent high-end slide on the pedal steel (regardless of how tasty they were). And I'll admit‚ I was pretty anxious for the next set myself.
Titled "All We Are Saying: The Music of John Lennon‚" this set was taken to a whole other realm by the incredibly talented and incredibly pregnant Jenny Scheinman on violin. Seriously‚ I thought the woman was gonna pop on stage. The music however‚ was transcendent. These songs were played with grace‚ and passion‚ and caused a communal heart link in the audience that had me more than once fantasizing of the other Lennon songs that would have been part of our collective DNA if he had been around a little bit longer. "Nowhere Man" crept off into a spine-tingling ambience that I would justifiably label as 'shoegaze-jazz.' Frisell's bursts of tasteful exuberance came on the crests of these songs' waves‚ each time dipping the music in a boomerang arc of force and expansion. Melody lines shared between Frisell and Scheinman were bittersweet and almost eerie in their ideal nature -- I kept hearing familiar passages suddenly sound like long-lost Chopin phrases. In this nature‚ they breathed a new life into tunes like "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away‚" "Julia‚" "Imagine‚" -- well‚ the whole set basically. At one point Frisell slowly ranted about the airport and then told a long corny-uncle kind of joke. He was easily a touch delirious from lack of sleep‚ but it only seemed to be pushing him deeper in some way. The movement from "Hold On" into "Give Peace a Chance" was trance-inducing. The motion of interplay between everyone on that stage while they roll through these sections of widening drones is not only impressive and beautiful‚ it's also an entirely different approach to playing music than you would ever see from this lineup of instruments anywhere else. At 60 years old‚ Bill Frisell's level of innovation is still broadening and it's incredibly inspiring. The "Beautiful Boy"/"Love" encore only fattened the awe.