Verbrugghen Hall, June 2
The theory is so simple: leave your ego and all your hours of practice at the door, and let the music play itself. Were it that easy, of course, everyone would do it. In fact shedding the baggage can be even harder than mastering the instrument, but for the Bill Frisell Trio it was a breeze, as they capped Sydney Conservatorium’s day-long jazz festival.
Not that Frisell (guitar), Thomas Morgan (bass) and Rudy Roytson (drums) have only sewn up the art of shedding baggage. This was also a masterclass in empathy, interplay, understatement, dynamics and all aspects of musicality and imagination. What other band combines Lush Life and You Only Live Twice in the same repertoire, or Monk’s Rhythm-a-ning with Bacharach’s What the World Needs Now Is Love and Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind?
Just as the great Ben Webster used to bring a ballad’s lyric to life via his tenor saxophone, so Frisell makes the words resonate and echo in the strings of his guitar, amplifying the enigma of Blowin’ in the Wind, for instance. Earlier he and his colleagues stripped You Only Live Twice of excess, to reveal the staggering beauty implicit in John Barry’s composition, especially the descending motif before the sung melody.
While lurching between improbable song juxtapositions, we were also treated to a travelogue of rhythms, and to Frisell’s supremely sophisticated use of real-time looping, so the end of What the World Needs Now became a parting of the clouds, with a choir of harp-like guitars singing from the heavens.
He is as eclectic and imaginative as any electric guitarist ever, and the trio is just as wondrous as a collective entity. They huddled together in the centre of the big stage, and actually made the cavernous Verbrugghen Hall work better than any amplified band I’ve heard – an extraordinary feat of touch, ears and instinct. Then there was their collective phrasing in the rubato section of Lush Life, where they seemed to breathe as one, like the greatest string trios do. And finally there was the balance of musical personalities: the self-effacing Frisell and pithy, laconic Morgan joined by the more extroverted Royston – although his was an extroversion expressed with infinite subtleties and some of the most beautiful cymbal sounds you will hear.