Bill Frisell

York Theatre, June 3

Reviewed by John Shand


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Bill Frisell. Photo supplied.

If you could distil innocence and then teach it to play guitar it would sound like Bill Frisell. Frisell is still the kid whose eyes light up with that “Oh, wow!” sense of wonder at the sounds an electric guitar can make. With each note of You Only Live Twice he seemed to be saying to us, “Can you believe this thing?” And it was glorious: the bass strings sounding simultaneously fat and twangy; the treble shimmering with overtones.

Frisell might be among the most intuitive improvisers and innovative guitarists in jazz history, but it is his ability to turn off the tap of accumulated knowledge and play like a child that defines his artistry. So it’s no coincidence that his When You Wish Upon a Star project revisits the screen music of his formative years with charming ingenuousness. Frisell doesn’t look for ways to put an individual stamp on this material: he just plays it, and the stamp takes care of itself.

Petra Haden, meanwhile, sings with a naive purity: a girlish sound with no vibrato, as though someone has said to her, “Don’t try to be a singer. Just sing.” At 35 bassist Thomas Morgan still looks like a teenager and, with his instinct for space and simplicity, sounds like the spiritual heir to Petra’s father, Charlie Haden, arguably jazz’s most profound bassist. Drummer Rudy Royston exudes less artlessness than the others, but in lacing the material with endless subtleties and knowing invention he makes the music more three-dimensional.

This project has grown exponentially since the band released When You Wish Upon a Star album last year, and in retrospect they may have recorded it prematurely. The repertoire has expanded, and everyone sounds looser and more relaxed with the material, playing it with an even more fascinating blend of affection, amusement, reverence, nostalgia, self-effacement and unforced creativity. The title track was a highlight, Frisell’s Milky Way of electronically treated sounds fathomless in their mystery, yet still nursing that childlike sense of wonder.