Guitarist Bill Frisell began his one-night stand Monday at Los Angeles’ Jazz Bakery leading his quintet in a loose-limbed, lowdown, shoes-off treatment of “You Are My Sunshine,” taken at a sexually evocative tempo known in old New Orleans as a slow drag.
It sounded like one of those “in the gutter” tracks that Clark Terry liked to do in the early days of hard bop. It certainly was not, for the first few dozen bars, a sound you would expect from a guy like Frisell, who hangs with the avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn in the New York Knitting Factory.
Ron Miles outputted a trumpet solo that was fragrant with magnolias and also silken, with a Mississippi-wide sound and a major command of venturesome harmonic pathways.
Drummer Kenny Wollesen wore a porkpie hat like Lester Young and came on like old Dave Tough out of Chicago, the guy who taught Woody Herman’s first herd how to swing. The tempo gave him ample space in which to deploy his arsenal of curious little sounds, produced by stroking his kit in secret places.
Saxophonist Greg Tardy brought to mind those bar-walking tenormen of old, only quicker in mind and finger. He gave the ear something to feed on in every measure.
But there was something going on after a while that lent a sarcastic mood to the whole thing, palatable as it was at the outset. Frisell was doing it.
He was cracking wise in his obbligatos behind the industrious, straight-ahead soloists, dipping into a wide palette of sonorities and a deep vocabulary of diffident but electrifying dissonant commentary, saying, in effect, let’s get as highbrow as we feel like.
So they all did. The second number was slow and rocking like the first, not so much down home as in the sub-basement. Frisell went into his book of twang, becoming Duane Eddy on acid, and straight country was not far away. Miles threw in some half-valve high-speed arpeggios, Tardy added some even faster lines, and bassist Tony Scherr strode ahead of them with a deep and dependable line.
Frisell’s best moments came on a number that started out like “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Here the pace was brisk, and Frisell took to it gratefully, releasing high-speed lines as in the days of Johnny Griffin a half-century ago, but with a kind of sneer, an attitude that was patronizing in a friendly, admiring way. It was a little like Mozart elaborating on Salieri. Frisell also added a bracing layer of bitonality that drained the excess honey from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
After a long piece with a South Seas vibe on which Miles played an absolutely lovely solo, past Thad Jones and past Clifford Brown, a delightful theme by Thelonious Monk was played, or at least referred to.
Crisp and witty, it left the listener wondering when he had ever heard such a great bunch before. Gotta go way, way back.