DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Bill Frisell – Blues Dream Live (2009)

Frisell incorporates traditional jazz, folk, country, fusion, progressive jazz, post-bop and rock into his aesthetic and does so in a singular way.

Published on December 17, 2009

Bill Frisell – Blues Dream Live (2009)

Bill Frisell – Blues Dream Live (2009)

Studio: Image Entertainment ID164ZIDVD
Video: 1.78:1 enhanced for 16×9 color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Bonus interview (18 minutes)
Subtitles: None
Length: 94 minutes
Region coding: all regions
Rating: ****

Bill Frisell is one of the most well-known jazz guitarists in the world, who transcends the boundaries of multiple styles or genres. He incorporates traditional jazz, folk, country, fusion, progressive jazz, post-bop and rock into his aesthetic and does so in a singular way infused with his personality and character. No matter what he tries it always comes out being purely Frisell. On his Blues Dream Live DVD, which captures his septet performance at the 2002 Montreal Jazz Festival, Frisell showcases much of his musical aptitude. Whereas the Blues Dream album was immersed in the blues and favored a slow-moving, dreamlike tendency, the Blues Dream Live DVD presentation explores a wider spectrum of Frisell’s overall approach to composition and improvisation.

Frisell is joined by artists who bring talented backing to the 15-song set list. Matt Chamberlain – who has previously supported rock and pop bands (Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, David Bowie and many more) and recently transitioned to jazz (Brad Mehldau) – takes the drum seat. Bassist David Piltch (misidentified on the credits as Plitch) is also a veteran of numerous pop and rock recordings (k.d. lang, Manhattan Transfer, et al). The three-man horn section includes alto saxophonist Billy Drewes, a versatile player who has worked with other guitarists such as Rez Abbasi, John Scofield and Leni Stern; trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, whose career spans both jazz and rock (The Lounge Lizards, Sheryl Crow and Charlie Haden are a few examples); and outstanding trumpeter Ron Miles. Rounding out the seven-piece team is Frisell’s fretted foil, Greg Leisz on electric steel guitar and mandolin.

The concert commences with four like-minded tunes ("What Do We Do?," "Dream On," "Outlaws" and "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," the first three of which come from the Blues Dream record) that surround three free-form extemporized tracks. The opener, "Improv 1," is a free jazz fragment, discordant and devoid of melody and which acts as a warm-up. As the song’s manic quality ebbs there is a natural flow to "What Do We Do?," during which Frisell mixes melodic runs that move from fluid to stinging while Chamberlain plays a slow, loping beat and the horns flavor the melancholy mood. Leisz slips in some country tones via steel guitar. The endeavor gradually picks up tempo with Frisell expounding on a louder, amplified sound which Leisz responds to with harsher notes from his electric steel guitar, his slide sweeping up and down his fretboard. The track ends in a disruptive mode that leads to "Improv 2," another brief, contentious portion where Frisell comes across like Nels Cline or Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore as he presents bursts of noise. The other bandmembers also craft an alien, otherworldly ambience, with Miles using a mute to augment the strangeness.

And just like that, with hardly a snap, the band edges into the film-noirish "Dream On," a beautiful ballad that has a late-night vibe. Miles provides bright, elevated trumpet flourishes mingled with deliberate off notes that add to the tune’s menacing, midnight mood.

The tone switches on "Outlaws," which has a swinging approach. Fowlkes enters into a bebop stance on a sustained solo, playing sharp, fleet figures as sweat pours down the back of his neck. Around the four minute mark, Frisell takes a solo, rendering high notes that flash and clip with a rock bite akin to Hendrix or Santana. At the conclusion, an enthusiastic "Yeah!" from a female audience member shows the crowd’s appreciative response to the piece.

The proceedings progress to a country cadence with the arrival of the Hank Williams hit "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," (inexplicably titled "…I Should Cry" on the DVD). Frisell elicits a nearly mystical point to the tale of resilience and despair. Frisell and Leisz swap lyrical lines that are inherently breathtaking. The horns add a Memphis-soul mannerism, furthering the emotions on the jazz/country fusion feature. Fowlkes takes another trombone solo that imparts an uplift and is followed by Miles, who does the same.

That’s succeeded by the final free-form excursion, "Improv 3," which is not quite as atonal as the previous impromptu asides. It starts out ambient if still off-kilter, with drums and horns swelling to a scratchy build-up that effectively becomes a quick-paced playlet that morphs into a farm-flickered effort, "The Tractor," with Frisell’s Nashville-inspired picking and Chamberlain’s country-tinged snare rolls. The horns, on the other hand, lift into a slightly New Orleans shuffle. When Leisz and Frisell exchange notes and chords, its like hearing the same exuberance as Les Paul and Chet Atkins had on their famous duet releases.

The show shifts again with "Blues Dream," a sober blues number with a telling trumpet/guitar duet, with Frisell achieving a clear and clean timbre while Miles dispenses a distortion underbelly. Miles then changes to a solitary pulse that speaks of a walk along a barren landscape with miles to go before reaching home. The song seamlessly segues into the similar fusion configuration, "Ron Carter." The tune begins with a relaxed, fusion feel, with Frisell’s casually contorted guitar delving into open space with a minor amount of volume. Later, Frisell and the horns do unison melodic lines that mirror each other. About four minutes in Frisell layers in some hard rock/fusion elements, upping the dynamics in his usual assured manner. The smile on his face as he hits some especially snaky riffs is just one example of the joy of having no limits.

The group then advances toward a rural direction with the program’s longest item, the ten-minute "Blues for Los Angeles," from Frisell’s 1998 undertaking Gone, Just Like a Train. While Miles fosters an Ellington-esque touch with his wah wah trumpet, Frisell deftly jumps from Chet Atkins-type notes to spurts of incremental noise. The rhythm perceptibly heightens and the composition slides into pulsing jazz territory, with Piltch’s bass swaying, Chamberlain hitting a groove pocket and Drewes in due time stepping out with a soulful sax jaunt. Another highlight is a sweetened Miles solo that generates much hand clapping. Frisell stays in a countrified domain with "Keep Your Eyes Open," from his 1997 outing, Nashville. Again, Leisz and Frisell interchange lines and both solo with confidence. The horns give the pastoral piece more punch than the original version, not really western swing but still rolling and rollicking. Chamberlain’s beat is appropriately restrained and helps support a rustic perception. "That Was Then," first issued on Good Dog, Happy Man (1999) has a related scheme, blending jazzy horns and agrarian guitar accents.

The septet ends with one cut each from Gone, Just Like a Train and Nashville. "Egg Radio" has a lilting meter intensified by unified horns and a striking Frisell improvisation that crosshatches rock guitar effects with jazz tonalities. "We’re Not From Around Here," conversely, utilizes a blues foundation that affords the track a sprightly, funky inclination. Drewes contributes a solo with short stabs of fast notes with a suggestion of Charlie Parker. The group closes with a dissonant fadeout.

The video multi-camera setup offers a closer-than-if-you-were-there characteristic. Multiple angles, from long shots hovering over the stage or from the back row, to close-ups on instruments, yield superior visuals: the cameras behind each musician reveal great vantage points to see each artist. Pans, zooms and soft fades reinforce the music’s dramatic nature and emphasize each player’s nuances. Lighting furnishes the scene a warm glow that enhances the visual component.

The audio is pristine and the mix very good, although sometimes the guitars overpower Piltch’s subtleties (particularly when he uses his bow), Chamberlain’s hand percussion or the occasional breathy and low notes from Miles or Fowlkes. There is a bonus, 18-minute Frisell interview. Unfortunately the review copy did not include Frisell’s comments, so this reviewer is unable to supply information on the conversation with Frisell.

One big plus is that the concert – unlike some videos – is not cut apart by any interview segments and the visual moments are firmly centered on the artists and the performances. However, someone should have proofed the text before approving the DVD. It’s one thing to get titles slightly wrong but another to misspell a musician’s name.

– Doug Simpson




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