This weekend saw the start of the 20th Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The program is jam-packed as ever with global superstars of jazz, and tonight audiences were graced with the magic of the Bill Frisell Trio, comprising Frisell himself on guitar, Thomas Morgan on double bass, and Rudy Royston on the drums. The gig was a lean 80 minutes (the trio were playing twice on the one night) but every minute was full of complexity.
For those unfamiliar with Frisell’s work, the gig confounded expectations in many ways. The music tended away from easily identifiable forms, with each of the three players punctuating one another’s sound. It was a virtuosic mess of blues, country, and of course a reliable undertone of jazz. The solos, when they happened, flowed seamlessly in and out of the body of the music, keeping the audience attentive to every moment. The dynamic between the three players was like a conversation amongst friends where everyone talks over one another, but lovingly, and everyone still catches everyone else’s meaning.
Amidst this frenetic energy, Frisell’s persona is enormously endearing. I was particularly taken with the manner in which the tuning of his guitar slid into the start – or sometimes the middle – of the music. And his oddball patter with the audience brought a huge amount of warmth into a room already buzzing from the music. The same oddball patter brought vocalist Petra Haden to the stage, seemingly from nowhere. The singer joined the band for two incredibly sweet tracks, 'Shenandoah' and 'When You Wish Upon a Star'. These choices, along with a little surprise burst of Burt Bacharach later in the gig, felt strangely and refreshingly wholesome.
The music we heard tonight would reward a closer listen; it’s almost a shame it wasn’t recorded. Say what you will about the ephemeral nature of jazz – there’s so much here that could be discovered and rediscovered in Frisell’s subtle variations of licks and phrases. His complex palate of influences make it easy to see why his music has appealed to so many – he picks what is of interest from a range of musical styles, and blends these meticulously to form sounds that feel endlessly new.
For anyone who got along to this gig – or anyone who didn’t but is curious – there’s still a little more of Bill in the festival. The “jazz on film” series will include the film Bill Frisell: A Portrait by filmmaker Emma Franz; two screenings only, Saturday 4 and Sunday 10 June. Visit the ACMI website for details.
Bill Frisell Trio
Bill Frisell - guitar
Thomas Morgan - bass
Rudy Royston - drums
with guest artist Petra Haden - voice
The Jazzlab, 4 June
Melbourne International Jazz Festival
2-11 June 2017
This article was co-written with Melbourne anthropologist Josiah Lulham.