Friday, June 29, 2012

Jazz Fest Day 1 - Frisell & Porter

Bill Frisell has the ability to investigate every nook and cranny of a melody and draw new textures from it. Relying on the repertoire of John Lennon, this gift was in full display at Club Soda tonight. And who better to pay tribute to all sides of Lennon's musicality, from his originally skiffle and R&B influenced rhythm guitar chops to his experiments with tape loops, than Frisell? Alongside steel guitarist Greg Leisz. bassist Tony Scherr. and drummer Kenny Wollesen, the group reframed Lennon's work, sometimes in drastic ways, without ever straying too far from the tunes.

Sporting a Gibson ES-style semi-hollowbody axe - not a guitar I associate with him - Frisell and company came on stage after a kitschy orchestral version of "Yellow Submarine," without any prerecorded announcement. His swirling, delay-laden, celestial voicings led into a lightly deconstructed "Across the Universe," announced by repeating the "jai guru deva" section. This band deals in impossibly gradual crescendos, ratcheting up the energy in painstakingly incremental fashion. Frisell can lay into the simplest of melodies with the utmost conviction, and has the patience to stay there - "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" from East/West is the textbook example of this.

Frisell's relationships with these specific bandmates go back years, if not decades. The blend between Frisell and Leisz was so close, at times I couldn't tell who was creating what. Wollesen was clearly having a blast, laying into the backbeats of "Please Please Me" and gleefully referencing Ringo's tom fills of "Come Together." And if there's any bassist within the jazz realm who clearly understands Paul McCartney's bottom-end aesthetic of being melodic while also being glued to the kick drum, Scherr is it.

Once the melody of "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" appeared out of a nearly Coltrane-ish modal excursion, Leisz and Frisell would coalesce their lines into a poignant, powerful downbeat. Frisell's dissonances never seemed to be tacked onto the songs: they seemed perfectly natural, like they had always been there, lurking under George Martin's production.

The final tune of the set, "In My Life," induced goosebumps and tears from its clarion opening theme. The piano solo became a recurring part of the arrangement, played in perfect tandem between Leisz and Frisell. Towards the end, Wollesen unleashed a train beat that morphed itself into a nearly Sonny Rollins-esque calypso, before detonating a long E-power-chord pedal that resolved itself to end the set. The two encores, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Imagine" were played more or less straight up, which is not to say they lacked innovation or beauty. Not by a long shot.

Gregory Porter is a new name to me. I had heard snippets on Bandcamp before, but my knowledge of his work was much more limited than my experience with Frisell, whom I have seen four times. Porter has a husky, classic soul-man baritone, with a Kurt Elling-like nasal rasp in his upper register. He has clear diction and a very disciplined sense of melisma. His between-song banter reminded me of Bill Withers' monologues from Live at Carnegie Hall. Clearly, he knows his history, with his original songs incorporating the classic Motown grooves (complete with a quote of "It's the Same Old Song") and take-no-prisoners swing.

Porter recounted the travel fiasco he and his bandmates encountered in arriving to Montreal. Perhaps that accounts for the kind of youthful raggedness of their sound. Aaron James' intonation on the bass was iffy in places, which made me think it wasn't his own instrument. Pianist Chip Crawford, in the first set, relied on his hands in unison - either octaves or tenths - spinning impressive, if hyperactive, lines. By the end of the two-and-a-half hours, I felt like he had run out of ideas, resorting to a series of glissandi on "Wisdom." Saxophonist Yosuke Sato had a piercing, poppy alto sound, and lacked Porter's restraint. Drummer Emmanuel Harold (I'll check the spelling of his name tomorrow) was a real revelation for me, anchoring the rhythmic feel of the band, from the gospel-meets-one-drop of "Mother's Song" to the Philly Joe Jones rim-click swing at the end of their version of Mingus' "Moanin'". When Porter was singing, the band gelled behind him admirably.

The sets were evenly split between Porter's originals and a repertoire of standards, notably including a fast version of Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile." This was followed by a gorgeous rendition of "Skylark" that was marred only by Rufus Wainwright's outdoor show leaking into the club. (Someone needs to get on soundproofing L'Astral, stat!) Even after two-and-a-half hours of barnburning soul-jazz, the audience demanded an encore. Running up against his curfew, Porter indulged with a short, sweet, a cappella rendition of "Mona Lisa."

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