At a nightclub in New Orleans called Donna’s, young brass band musicians line up once a week in cutting sessions to play solos over a steady bebop rhythm section. Nearly every last one of the soloists is steeped in the core of jazz specifically, the music Louis Armstrong made from the 1920s to the 1940s and as each makes the leap from trad jazz to bop, what emerges is historical-sounding jazz from a period that never existed. Such is the case with Bill Frisell.
Frisell, deemed the top jazz artist of 1998 by the critics at Downbeat, performs a front-porch version of jazz that takes a musical style forever associated with late nights and dark rooms and brings it out in the sunlight.
It’s no longer booze and smoke, it’s hot dogs and lemonade; rather than sax and trumpet, its guitar and dobro; most important, the music’s subtle, with an itchiness that reminds the listener to beware: There are surprises ahead.
This year Frisell has released two vastly different yet superb albums, “The Sweetest Punch” for Decca, in which he recasts for a guitar-led band the Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello album “Painted From Memory,” and “Good Dog Happy Man,” an airy, almost subversive effort that relies on flawless musicianship and an absence of sentimentality. The first of his four shows at McCabe’s emphasized the original material of the latter disc, as Frisell showcased gradually building songs that took their time to languish and shimmer.
Frisell, 48, began his band’s 80-minute perf by electronically looping a series of couplets over which he sparked up a gently lilting melody that involved a pastoral call and response between Frisell and Greg Leisz’s dobro. Eventually, the tune faded into a rural blues.
On the acoustic guitar, Frisell settles in the calmest of waters and relies on folk-inspired melodies. As an electric guitarist, Frisell is forever tweaking his gadgetry and twisting knobs, though his sound remains as steady and as identifiable as when he was first heard leading a band for ECM Records in 1983.
He has since grown warmer as a composer, but there’s an austere veneer that always makes him stand out; his only competitor is John Abercrombie, a fine musician technically, but not one who can keep up with the breadth of Frisell’s material, which spans Buster Keaton movie music to John Hiatt and avant-garde rock. Friday, Frisell not only demonstrated a flair for horror movie music but Hawaiian cowboy music as well; drummer Kenny Wolleson gave each tune a definite rock parameter, and bassist David Piltch, after an evening of stolid support, skedaddled into a walking bass solo with the rush of a long slow kiss.
Superstar sideman Leisz (k.d. lang, Dave Alvin) shines under Frisell’s tutelage, and his evocative solos on lap steel and pedal steel guitar as well as dobro show him off as an ace soloist. Leisz is the real deal, an artist worthy of a deal on his own. Frisell seems far more interested in what the listener thinks after he or she leaves a venue. There are no histrionics, no flashy solos, but he does smile when a particular passage tickles his fancy. And it’s that smile that lingers most.