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Bill Frisell Quintet / April 19, 2006 / New York (Village Vanguard)
When the Bill Frisell Quintet sauntered onto the hallowed stage of New York City's Village Vanguard and tuned up, their throat-clearing squeaks and strums oozed slowly into music without a pause to deWhen the Bill Frisell Quintet sauntered onto the hallowed stage of New York City's Village Vanguard and tuned up, their throat-clearing squeaks and strums oozed slowly into music without a pause to declare an official beginning. A blues tune began to take form from far in the distance, at first in a pleasantly woozy free time but drawing ever more sharply into focus until it started to swing joyously and got heads bobbing out in the packed house.
Frisell is capable of conveying a wide range of styles and moods in his many bands, and straight-ahead jazz isn't always on the agenda. But during the second night of a two-week stand at the Vanguard (through April 30), the guitarist opened and closed his first set with bluesy mainstream swingers that flaunted his group's considerable jazz chops.
Of course, the ever-unpredictable Frisell wasn't about to stop there. He also included a brisk klezmer-tinged original that the band had just learned that afternoon, and he dusted off the playful "Chase" theme from his 1995 score for the Buster Keaton film "The High Sign." "Chase" is tightly composed, and showed that though the quintet likes to keep things loose, it is capable of playing with spot-on precision.
This group augments Frisell's usual New York rhythm section of Tony Scherr on upright bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums with tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Greg Tardy and Ron Miles on trumpet and cornet. A larger ensemble means less time in the spotlight for Frisell, who's a generous leader, content to offer creative yet supportive comping while his mates take their share of solos. In fact, there was a strong sense of group interplay throughout the evening, with full-band accompaniment during almost every instrumental showcase.
Tardy's solos were exciting, upbeat and in the pocket, while Miles's breaks were a bit more elegant and pensive. Soloing looks easy in Frisell's hands, with his well-sculpted, chord-rich improvisations, made earthier by the occasional blues or country lick. Though he likes to boost his warm, fluid tone with peals of distortion, he mostly resisted that urge, turning on the crunch just once for a nice change of pace.
He did, though, make ample use of his beloved looping device, using his guitar to set up what sounded like pitch-shifting electronic blips, which he then played over in real time. In a charming display of solidarity, the band members added their version, with Wollesen clicking and clacking around the rims of his drums, Scherr raking his fingers across muted bass strings, Miles offering metallic screeches and Tardy playing a winningly strange rhythmic pattern on clarinet.
At other times, the horns and rhythm section played against each other. In a piece early on, Scherr and Wollesen tapped out a fast staccato shuffle while Tardy and Miles floated slow, rich, distinctly Frisellian melodies above the pulse. The music was sometimes serious and stirring, sometimes light and breezy, but Frisell treated the whole set like a romp. As Wollesen coaxed forth ever more sounds from his small kit, the guitarist turned to him often, smiling his approval.