Opera House, Wellington
Wednesday, June 7
For the opening night of this year’s Jazz Festival it was master guitarist Bill Frisell backed by the supple, magical rhythm section of Thomas Morgan (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums) along with Petra Haden on vocals.
It was a deep and astonishing set of music – subtle, pervasive, full of heart and yet almost entirely ego-less. So rare to hear a guitarist play for over 90 minutes without falling victim to one lightning run, the big ole bag of tricks reduced down to merely a few effects and loop pedals and a warmth emanating from them and the strings; Frisell has the chops too – you can hear him burn. Across records by Ginger Baker and John Zorn, on plenty of his own material too. But this was a set drawn heavily from his recent album of reimagined TV and film soundtracks. Stunning stuff and cleverly represented in slightly different versions here (no violin, as is sometimes heard on the record).
Fluid, relaxed, hypnotic as melodies circled then wafted away, it wasn’t just Frisell that was ego-less; here four team players made no dash for the finish-line, never looked like even trying to claim a whisker of available limelight, this was about the music – and about the bond of, and through, playing. Petra Haden’s pure, vibrato-less voice worked when singing an old Disney weepie (When You Wish Upon A Star) or sitting on the most inane of wordless chants (literally a run of “la la la la la la” on Farewell to Cheyenne.
Thomas Morgan might have just totalled the most ‘solos’ of the night, though the band played through them too, so that Morgan’s warm sound found new expressions, rather than just diving down deep and staying low and slow. He also never rushed out the furious fingers that tickle hard at the bass strings as if giving fuss to a kitten’s neck. He seems a player cut from a similar cloth to the dearly departed Charlie Haden (Petra’s dad, over the years a frequent collaborator of Frisell’s and one of the most influential and enigmatic of modern jazz bassists; a legend). Morgan’s playful playing seemed to arrive in a similar way as Haden’s – it felt similarly strong and rich, the right choice always being made, signs of scrutiny in the face too, a calmness covering up for the deep consideration, and there were several moments when Frisell just stopped (never to ever be deemed an over-player anyway) and smiled across the stage at either Morgan on his own or at the interplay between Morgan and Royston.
Rudy Royston has that Brian Blade-type ability to really drive the sound but also be sitting back deep inside it. He brings colour to the sound in his subtle and wise selections; constantly exploring too. One song might see him move from mallets to brushes to sticks, back to brushes and to mallets once again. Other times he would sit as far outside of the song while Frisell’s curling and curious intros set a slow-burn flicker.
Petra Haden’s lead vocal bookended the show with Moon River and You Only Live Twice and an encore brought another Bond theme into a new context – as a representation of where Frisell is at right now it was utterly perfect. See him again next year and he’ll be placing notes, repeating phrases, reshaping the feel and tone of ‘jazz’ guitar in other ways. So many of his lines curl at the end and tangle into a near-country knot; he gently teases them back out into a new furl. And the players around him work so well in helping to achieve this vision, this version. The distillation of so much music, of playing and process, of decisions, genres, moments and moods…all down to this one set of sounds on this one night…well, you could have left a little disappointed you didn’t hear a particular this or that, you might have been frustrated to never quite see what his hands were actually doing – the very anti-guitar hero stance of being side-on to face the band, to let the music speak, and drift, and circle, then vanish.
It was spellbinding.
And then it was over. And I haven’t really been able to think about much else since.