Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kaiser at The Stone, Frisell at The Vanguard

Henry Kaiser-Melvin Gibbs-Weasel Walter at The Stone

World-class guitarist and Antarctic diver, associate of the Grateful Dead and Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser is a prolific recording artist and restless sonic explorer. The only set of his recent week at The Stone that I caught was a monster, a trio of heavies going at it hammer and tongs. Sonny Sharrock was one reference point for the music they played, as Kaiser steered the opening improv into Sharrock’s “Blind Willy” and followed by asking Gibbs about his time playing with the legendary guitarist. The between-song banter mostly revolved around mutual respect, with Kaiser talking about seeing Gibbs with Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, and the younger Walter noting the influence of the other musicians’ records in his formative years. Gibbs played plenty of bass, from space-filled dub/funk patterns to fervent, melodic solos high on the neck. One highlight of the set came when Gibbs began soloing over a loop Kaiser had set up. Kaiser himself reentered and the piece reached truly ecstatic territory, with the musicians pushing each other higher and higher. Kaiser used two guitars and a battery of effects to generate sounds ranging from some superb, fairly straightforward rock tones to weirdo sound sculpture. Weasel Walter played the role of disrupter (something he seems to relish), sometimes locking in with but more often playing against what the guitarists were doing. Walter injected non-stop intensity, improvisational energy and surprise to the set with his singular language, incorporating metal drum techniques to great effect.

Bill Frisell at The Village Vanguard

As Henry Kaiser’s week at The Stone wrapped up, Stone director John Zorn began a week at The Village Vanguard, with different configurations of musicians performing his music each night. On the second night, Bill Frisell (Melvin Gibbs’ bandmate in the short-lived but memorable trio Power Tools, with Ronald Shannon Jackson) played his first-ever solo set at the venue where he’s appeared so many times over the years with his own groups and in the great trio with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano. Frisell was set up at the front of the stage, a dual amp setup behind him, Gnostic Trio bandmate Carol Emanuel’s harp beside him (in place for the following set), Telecaster in hand, pedal board at his feet, and a music stand full of Zorn compositions in front of him. If it was strange seeing Frisell, a master improviser, playing through a set of fully composed music, the music itself had a familiar sound to anyone who’s heard much of Zorn’s voluminous and still-growing catalog of Book of Angels recordings. Whether the characteristic sound of these pieces derives from the use of the Phrygian dominant scale or some other Sephardic modes Zorn may have discovered, they have proven to be quite adaptable to a wide variety of musical settings. The solo guitar arrangements that Frisell played were arresting, quite beautiful in places, and clearly took massive concentration and skill to pull off, with several pieces requiring the guitarist to build up and play on top of multiple simultaneous loops. Frisell seemed briefly flustered while negotiating some of the most complex passages, but it was truly an amazing performance, especially for the way the guitarist was able to express so much of his own musical personality through Zorn’s pieces. Frisell’s style is so fully developed and refined at this point, so thoroughly personal, that anything he chooses to play is going to be suffused with his sound. While Frisell tackled the challenges of Zorn’s music, his titles were another matter. There was a very funny moment when he tried announcing the songs, realized he wasn’t sure how to pronounce them, and appealed to Zorn (standing in the back of the venue) for help. Though Zorn left Frisell hanging on this point, the music (and the big hug they shared at the end of the set) reconfirmed the health of the longtime creative relationship between the two.