Last night I saw the semi-legendary guitarist Bill Frisell, which was curious because I’ve never been a huge fan of his. He was playing in a trio with Jenny Scheinman (I do like a lot of her work, but have never really been able to get into the album I have with her as a leader, 12 Songs) on violin and Greg Leisz on lap steel and pedal steel. The overall sound of this trio was extraordinarily chill, occupying a space somewhere between bluegrass, Americana, jazz and classical. They opened with a piece that lasted around 45 minutes, which featured some really beautiful melodies, but when Frisell was doing his exploratory solos I quickly lost interest. He has a certain sense of melody that I find difficult to follow; it’s fractured in a way that doesn’t appeal to me all that much. He spent a really long time playing those fractured semi-melodies, in his clean-as-a-whistle undistorted tone, using a lot of looping and some pitch manipulation, and when he was noodling away I was mostly bored. But when the band came together — man, they were beautiful. Scheinman tended to dominate the obvious melodies, and her playing was immaculately tasteful.
The highlight for me, though, were the moments when Leisz — the only one of the three musicians with whom I was not familiar beforehand — took the spotlight. Like Frisell and Scheinman, his playing was invariably low-key and tasteful, and his lap steel playing was just beautiful. Whenever he was in the lead or playing any kind of lyrical melody, I felt like I was listening to soundtrack music to an old black and white western. Just really evocative stuff. These moments were more frequent in the three pieces they played after that one 45-minute piece, perhaps because those pieces were more composed with less emphasis on improvisation (though to be honest at many times I had a hard time telling what was written and what was played on the fly).
Not a transcendent experience, then, but I wasn’t expecting one. I went mostly because I really wanted to see Scheinman, and while I was lost for a little while, there was enough there to keep me pretty happy. That’s actually kind of surprising in and of itself, considering that my taste in jazz runs almost exclusively to the energy-jazz side of things, and this show was pretty much exactly the opposite.