Bill Frisell bewitches with Strings at Ronnie Scott’s

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It’s a great recipe: take a string quartet line-up, dispense with one of the violins and replace it with an electric guitar, assemble folks who are at the top of their game for the four chairs, and kick off with some tunes from the brow of one of today’s leading jazz arrangers and composers.

What we heard at Ronnie Scott’s this Tuesday night was the Big Sur line-up; Bill Frisell on electric Stratocaster guitar, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, Eyvind Kang, viola, but minus drummer Rudy Royston. Although it is not everyone’s favourite, for me Big Sur is one of Frisell’s strongest and most lasting recordings.

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The show opened with a hushed guitar riff accompanied by a gentle sigh of strings that gradually swelled in volume with the introduction of a meditative pulse. From there on it barely got any louder. It fleetingly seemed that it might all be rather undemonstrative, not as far removed from staying at home and listening to a recording as one would have liked, except that there was an enthralling air of magic coupled to clarity of detail that is rarely experienced. And of course the improvisation, and humour, and ...you get the picture. We all felt fortunate to be there. There was just enough volume for the music to caress the ears with an abundance of detail, and no louder.

When Frisell finds something in the music for which he is striving, an expression of boyish mischievousness illuminates his features. His appearance and approach to music making is quite unvarying over time, almost as if he has embraced Frank Zappa’s concept of “conceptual continuity”. A new show seems to pick up where the last one ended, even if years intervene. Not unlike JJ Cale, Frisell turned his groove early on and has been ploughing that fertile furrow ever since, harvesting an abundance of produce within.

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Some of the themes did have an initial country air, almost deliberately, humorously, hillbilly, a sound that Frisell delved into on his landmark album Nashville, and then settling into a most engaging swinging groove. Heard like this, country-style swing is not very far removed from Django-esque European gypsy jazz, although I’m not aware that anybody else has suggested a connection. Whenever the music might have been in danger of becoming too ethereal, an energising groove and captivating tune was never far away.

On the evidence of this show, one could only agree with those critics who voted Jenny Scheinman to near the top of jazz violin critics’ polls, as the lyricism of the parts she contributed, especially towards the end, were quite wonderful. Hank Roberts’ bowing of the cello was effortless and engaged, and Eyvind Kang’s pizzicato contributions in particular stood out. At the close,Frisell was clearly delighted with the performance. Jazz audiences occasionally applaud politely but then express caveats in the margins afterwards, but I heard no doubts expressed by anyone. In this company, Frisell sketched a sonic landscape that is unavailable to the senses until the next time he visits.

– Graham Boyd
– Photos by Carl Hyde