July 31, 2011
@Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
Better than:Picnicking in a lush meadow on Mars.
Bill Frisell stood timidly in front of the microphone, telling the crowd how his band tonight, the 858 Quartet, hadn't played together since recording an album last October. "I have no idea what's gonna happen," he said. "We'll find out in a second."
Humility is not a common trait for living legends like Frisell, but from the very beginning of last night's set at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, it was a staple of the man, his music, and his group, which consisted of Frisell on guitar, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, and Eyvind Kang on viola.
Frisell's quartet shaped its sound not through virtuosic solos or jawdropping technique, but through an ability to craft superbly subtle songs and then -- prepared or not -- channel them songs into lush, dynamic sonic journeys.
The 100-minute set included just eight songs, most of which meandered and twisted for 15 to 20 minutes, evolving through moods and styles. Some sections were slow and delicate, others syncopated and almost funky, with Roberts occasionally slapping his cello for percussive effect. Contrary to standard jazz procedure, the songs did not seem to include solos -- rather, instruments came in and out of prominence in the overall texture. Scheinman, for example, sometimes made her violin wail with grief; other times, she toyed with classic orchestral sounds or folky fiddle techniques. Indeed, all of Frisell's backing musicians brought impeccable talent and stylistic range.
Frisell himself led the group, of course, but he played his part as just one of the four, sometimes coming to the forefront of the group's sound and other times fading into the background. Near the end of the set, he dabbled with some of his more electric, experimental impulses, using a delay loop to create a wavelike crest of humming feedback or turning up the distortion for some crunch.
Songs like "Old Times," from the 2010 album Sign of Life, seemed to end several times, only to get new life and move forward into new territory. When songs finally did end, they did so like a spaceship on its final drops of fuel, sputtering until the very last moment, then coming to a halt abruptly and almost begrudgingly, sometimes just after Frisell had introduced a hint of some new, tantalizing melody or chord changes.
When a very enthusiastic crowd -- mostly young students at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and older yuppies -- requested an encore, Frisell delivered with a cover of "Strawberry Fields Forever." The piece's first half followed the Beatles original fairly closely, but then evolved into something else entirely, veering away from the original into a melodic exploration.
Describing the quartet's sound is admittedly difficult -- suffice it to say that the best place to listen to its songs would be at a picnic on Mars, lounging in a peaceful field under a light-green sky. Frisell dabbled as much with colors and textures as with sounds, incorporating hints of atonal orchestral music, some kind of postmodern folk, tight grooves, and elements of rock. It was a strange but satisfying mix.
Frisell was shy but charming, often with a smile on his face. Between two songs in the middle of the show, he went to the microphone to speak to the crowd but found himself suddenly confused. "I just stood up and walked to the mike, and I have no idea what I wanted to say," he said, laughing. "I was gonna say something about fear and anger and guilt," he said, "but I forgot. Just shake that shit off of you." Give us another concert like that, and we think we'll be able to manage.
Personal bias: I'm a guitar player. 'Nuff said.
Personal beef: I was sternly asked three times not to take photos, despite the enormous "PHOTO" press badge around my neck. (The same audience member who told me to stop taking photos proceeded to talk with her neighbors during several songs, surprise surprise.)
Overheard in the crowd: One of the jazz workshop students after the show: "Dude, that was sick."