Frisell and Unspeakable Orchestra bring eloquent jazz to the HOP

by Caitlin Kelly | 11/15/06 6:00am

Bill Frisell played to a jazz-loving crowd in Spaulding Auditorium last night.
by Courtesy of the Hopkins Center / The Dartmouth

However, to corral Frisell's Unspeakable Orchestra into one genre is to do it a huge disservice. His work -- over 200 recordings' worth and countless live performances -- defies a label, mixing jazz, blues, country and rock into a sublime aural experience. Frisell is a jazz guitarist of unspeakable talent; indeed, he himself is hard pressed to describe the thought process behind the beauty that reverbs from those six strings (and a number of distortion boxes).

Last night's performance was the third from this latest line-up of musicians, which combines a string trio with a more traditional setup of drums, bass, saxophone and trumpet. Frisell had played with various arrangements of these players, but with all of them together it "still feels real new." The dynamic chemistry between all of them was thrillingly evident, especially in the interplay between Frisell's guitar and the various solos each instrumentalist performed.

I was initially apprehensive when what I thought was a tuning session turned out to be the first song of the evening. The beauty of Frisell's music, though, is that he can take chaotic, dissonant sounds and transform them into a song that, if without a definite melody, at least has some semblance of structure. Indeed, I was often surprised by these moments -- walls of sound, more than ambience but not quite a tune, swelling up to embrace the listener. At times, Frisell's brand of jazz could even be mistaken for experimental rock along the lines of Sigur Ros; at others, for a country or folk group.

Frisell's music is often described as cinematic, and last night's concert proved those evaluations. With soaring strings and lowing reeds and brass, the music has an epic, Copland-esque quality nowadays found mostly in film scores rather than popular music. Each piece evokes a series of moods that most songs today can't even convey with their lyrics. If every instrumentalist played with as much feeling -- and translated it as well as the Unspeakable Orchestra did -- one might think of vocalists as superfluous.

The instrumentation is key to Frisell's success. The violin, viola and cello of Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind Kang and Hank Roberts, respectively, were alternately haunting and moving, while the brass players Miles (trumpet) and Tardy (clarinet and tenor saxophone) added the warmth and soul that Frisell's electric guitar sometimes needs. It was a strange sight to see the organic movements of the string players at one end of the stage contrasting with Frisell at the other, hunched over his guitar and from time to time flipping switches and turning knobs like some mad scientist.

Some say that the only way to listen to jazz is live, and it is quite true that the improvisation and interplay among band members onstage infuses the music with an energy that can't be replicated easily on a disc playing in your living room. Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, on bass and drums, were irresistible to watch as they embodied every beat and note they played. Wollesen in particular is to be commended for his technical expertise, holding the beat of such complex material, and in his innovative use of every surface of his drum kit, even the drum sticks themselves.

As for solos, beyond Frisell's mastery of the guitar, Tardy, Scheinman and Roberts stood out, garnering the appropriate amount of applause at the end of the show. Many songs began muddled, as if the music was waking up, but the audience was always rewarded with an eventual instrument that shined through the haze to truly grab them. Each time it was exciting; the music driving and never winding down until the end. Many songs just meshed together -- looking at the set list, I was surprised to see double the amount of songs I thought the group had played.

Although the musical interaction on the stage was always invigorating, Frisell himself was very distant from the audience, only reaching out to introduce the members at the beginning and end of the concert, and when there were technical difficulties. Beyond notes, there was little repartee even between members. Perhaps this added to the ethereal quality of the music itself, but even in front of the smaller discussion group after the show, Frisell was tight-lipped and hunched, bringing to mind Dana Carvey's Garth Algar persona. It seems that all of Frisell's genius goes into his music and not his public speaking, which is just as well.

In every other respect, Frisell's Unspeakable Orchestra was fantasically eloquent, invoking chills at its best moments. Each song had something new to offer: a glimpse of another genre, a sample of a well-known melody, a truly amazing solo from one of the many performers onstage.

At the center of it all was Frisell, molding what could have been a sonic mess into a freely passionate but carefully constructed musical experience.