By Don Heckman
Ashland, Oregon. It’s been considerably more than two decades since I first wrote about a Bill Frisell program – a review in 1989 for the Los Angeles Times. I covered several other Frisell events for the Times in the interim, as well. And, although there were a few performances that aroused some disapproving responses, most of what I heard was consistent with a comment I made in that first review: “Frisell may well become one of the most provocative voices of the ’90s.”
Which he did, and which he has continued to do, well into the new century. And his performance at the Ashland Armory Thursday night was a good example of another comment I made in that early review, describing Frisell as “an artist with serious intentions.”
Intentions that were fully on display in the hour and a half set offered by Frisell and his creatively supportive associates, steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scheer and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
The performance was consistent with the approach Frisell has taken in recent years – a musical collective impressively blending pre-planned arrangements with vividly alive, improvisational spontaneity. The impact was enhanced by an almost non-stop flow of music. A few numbers concluded with lengthy, emotionally layered endings. More often, one piece after another blended amiably together without a break, handled with ease by Frisell and his world class musical companions.
This fascinating approach was applied to Frisell’s characteristic interest in a wide stylistic range of material. And he touched most of his interests – from country and Americana to blues, groove and beyond. Some of the instantly compelling moments were provided by a ¾ country tune juxtaposed against some country swing, a touching version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Americana classic, “Shenandoah” and a few compelling excursions into blues and rock.
Typically, Frisell had almost nothing to say to the enthusiastic, packed house crowd, clearly preferring to let the music speak for itself, a wise choice. Suffice to say that Frisell and his world class players were in rare form, individually and collectively.
And, as this captivating evening came to a close, I couldn’t help but feel pleased that my decades-old comments about the future potential of Frisell’s artistry had accurately forecast the extent of his remarkable, still growing career.
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Photo by Paul Moore courtesy of Bill Frisell.
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It’s also worth noting that this was my first review of a performance at the Ashland Armory. And, despite the venue’s large, open space, its acoustics were surprisingly good. I look forward to doing more reviews in this musically friendly space.