By Geoff Cowart
He never uttered a word. Even after a steady 90 minutes on the Cadogan Hall stage, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell probably thought he had said enough with his playing. If so, he was correct.
For his EFG London Jazz Festival gig on November 18, the veteran guitarist crossed his legs and picked strings like he was casually sitting around at home. Perched on a piano stool he rifled through a kaleidoscopic setlist from his 40-year playing career, mashing songs into each other and whacking pedals at a whim when he desired a new effect or loop.
The iconoclastic player has often been maligned for his ethereal soft touch. Sure, he’s not the heaviest player and he’s happy to build up spacey atmospheres where others might simply resort to sheer power. But it’s that mix of tasteful restraint and incisive cutting edge that have always set him apart from the pack.
The Baltimore-born guitarist burst onto the scene in the early 80s, playing on dates for the famous German label ECM before recording his first solo album – In Line – in 1982. From being a dependable foil to becoming one of the leading American guitarists of his generation, Frisell has always defied critics and blazed his own path through jazz, rock and country music. His unusual recording bedfellows include Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach and Lucinda Williams.
Frisell’s jazz festival gig was billed as a career retrospective and it didn’t disappoint in the breadth of its setlist. And rather unusually, the songs seemed to tumble out in pairs. Such as Thelonious Monk’s tricky Pannonica which he folded seamlessly into his own composition, Pretty Stars. Even more audacious was working Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life into John Barry’s theme to classic 007 film theme Goldfinger. Smiles ensued.
These were not faithful renditions. Instead, they were masterful and audacious versions of some classic songs which only proceeded to get more outlandish by closing time.
Frisell polished off his set with a three-song punch that left the packed house bewildered. Few musicians armed with just an electric guitar would be so foolish as to attempt to meld three songs by Bacharach (What the World Needs Now), Hank Williams (I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry) and John Lennon (In My Life/Give Peace A Chance) together.
But Frisell did. And then he stood up. Bowed. Waved. And slowly walked off the stage. Job done.