Sunday, November 22, 2009

This Is The Sound Of America

Bill Frisell, Mike Gibbs & The BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Jazz Festival, Barbican, Thursday 19th November 2009

This gig had all the hallmarks of being a really special evening, but somehow it didn’t quite happen.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra set the evening in motion with Copland’s grandiose ‘Appalachian Spring’. Images of great American landscapes and windblown plains were divvied up aplenty, and it was all very epic. Perhaps it was never going to do it for me, but it set an appropriate tone for an evening of classic American sounds. The piece had some interesting dark flourishes, but was too twee on the whole.

Charles Ives' ‘Three Places in New England’ was a definite improvement. The first movement was melancholy, mysterious and pensive in all the right ways. The second movement clattered a pastiche of musicals over a chromatic underlay, the melody lines delighting in leading you in predictable ways, but then twisting away at the most unlikely times and places. Some fearsome cacophonous climaxes were crashed over some cross cutting familiar themes.

After the break the paternal presence of a cosy checkered Bill Frisell joined the orchestra along with composer/conductor/arranger Mike Gibbs, and drummer Joey Baron for the premier of ‘Collage for a Day’ commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the festival. The piece had an over-arching classic country blues tone that was set right from the off, Frisell coming in over a suspenseful opening section with characteristic twangy tremeloed swampy blues lines. There were some tasty deep resonant cello parts in a waltzy section that followed, and Frisell decorated these by digging out some pinched harmonics with a grittier guitar sound. Some aspects echoed 1970s John Barry film scores despite the general American tone. A stark strident crash chord then set up a reversed loop backdrop which Frisell used to scatter more overdriven grit liberally across the chugging bolero rhythm.

The second movement opened with a promising Hitchcock-like short intro, this being followed by a biting rock blues riff accompanied by some great percussive finger drumming from Joey Baron. The strings then picked up the line and Frisell hit the echo reverse overdrive. It was gripping stuff, but could have done with a change of direction a little sooner, as it did start to flag. The heart rendering pathos of the next section invited us to fall into the warmth of its open voiced wide intervallic abstractions.

Frisell’s improvising was especially exploratory tonight, and just a shade on the wrong side of ponderous. A tad more commitment to the ideas would have gone a long way, though the approach maybe suited some of the more playful references. The romantic slow waltz of the next movement had some nice minor-major chord side kicks embellished with a thick Fripp-like tone, it all ending in a satisfying modal wash.

The encore tune was the finest of the evening, shades of sadness being contrasted and counter posed with dark ominous harmonies. A poignant and pensive end to an evening of mixed emotions.

2 comments:

rhythmaning said...

Last year's LJF Frisell trio gig - playing in front of some silent movies - was one of the highlights of the few gigs I saw.

This year, I reckoned the fusion of classical and jazz would probably be disappointing, and with so many other events on, I decided to give it a miss.

I'm rather glad I did!

I am not sure that I can reconcile the things I like about Frisell's playing - the openness and space, and the fluidity - with the restrictions playing with a large orchestra.

Ade said...

Hi rhythmaning.

Ta for your comment. Yeah it's a funny one. Most other reviews have been more positive than mine, John Fordham to name one (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/nov/20/bill-frisell-mike-gibbs-bbcso), and I know John Walters was into it too.

I could be for the reasons you say yes, that Frisell's sometimes tentative style needs more space. I did see him with Mike Gibbs in Manchester a few years ago and much preferred it. It was big band of sorts, but was there was still much more space in the sound.

Ade