Though they’ve recently doubled the size of their space, the folks at Blue in Portland still call their ticketed performance series “BIG NAMES small room.” Indeed, the change has not much compromised the intimate feel of the club. And, it has definitely opened up more opportunities for bookings of the sort that get a jazz fan’s heart pounding.
A sold-out solo performance by Grammy-winning guitarist Bill Frisell on Thursday evening fit the room nicely, filling it with musicianship of a very high order.
Usually referred to as a jazz guitarist, Frisell has revealed eclectic tastes over a long career. Compositions from many genres, but often rooted in the sounds of his youth, show up on his recordings. His own originals also defy easy classification. But his sound remains instantly recognizable.
The unassuming Baltimore native took a seat at center stage. With a couple of amplifiers behind him and an array of special-effects devices at his feet, he took up the telecaster electric in his lap and launched into an introductory passage that allowed the attentive audience, including a number of local musicians, time to get accustomed to his thoughtful approach.
It was a few minutes into the piece before the familiar strains of the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” were gradually revealed, setting the tone for a performance that, characteristically, tended toward the elegiac. Variations and subtle embellishments molded and stretched the tune until a complex transitional flourish gave way to the melancholy of “The Days of Wine and Roses.”
The next piece had the guitarist establishing layers of reverb-heavy sound and a sort of minimalist counterpoint through electronic looping. This number, like one a little later in the one-hour set, conjured and connoted expansive vistas, both earthly and otherworldly. Frisell’s solo lines often doubled back on themselves as he seemed to be searching for the place where melody and harmony meet. The familiar arpeggiated chords and mournful theme of “The House of the Rising Sun” cut through the sonic haze at one point.
Not all was mysterious improvisation, however. Emerging, later on, was a beautiful take on John Lennon’s “In My Life,” as delicate and moving in its own way as the original. And, more traditional jazz fans in the crowd were not disappointed as a playful medley of tunes by Thelonious Monk anchored the middle portion of the program.
Though he’s now 64 years old, it still seems possible to think of Bill Frisell as the quiet, introspective kid next door who just loves to spend time coaxing cool sounds out of his guitar. But with his breadth of musical knowledge and impressive technique built up over a long career, he’s one who became a truly world-class musician.
WHAT: Bill Frisell
WHERE: Blue, 650A Congress St., Portland
REVIEWED: June 25 (first show)