Bill Frisell: Orchestras

The guitarist is wrapped in orchestral arrangements by Mike Gibbs that often conjure the image of an elegant feather entombed in treacle


Why do jazz musicians sometimes wish to clothe their self-sufficiency in cumbersome apparel? To further dignify it? To improve it in different surroundings? To broaden its commercial appeal?

One feels, in fairness, that Bill Frisell’s double album is none of these but just a personal, almost private, desire to do something different musically, whatever the response. The Frisell trio of himself on electric guitar, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston sits in front of the Brussels Philharmonic (conductor, Alexander Hanson; the word “orchestra” is not part of its name) on the first disc, and with the Umbria Jazz Orchestra (MD, Manuele Morbidini) on the second. All the music, by divers hands but mostly Frisell himself, is orchestrated and arranged by Mike Gibbs, with Frisell sharing duties on the final track of disc one and Frisell going it alone as arranger on the last track of disc 2. Two charts, Ron Carter’s Doom and Frisell’s Electricity, are common to both discs.

To be blunt, the Brussels Phil disc is the aural equivalent of looking at an elegant feather entombed in treacle. It’s a full symphony orchestra, with the usual complement of strings in each department. Whereas, say, Gil Evans’s arrangements and Miles Davis’s trumpet are like fate-drawn dance partners gliding towards each other and becoming an entity ordained in heaven, the Frisell trio is burdened by – well, too much sound. The trio loses the orchestra for a while at the start of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, after the opening Nocturne Vulgaire, which is a tremulous urban night-piece composed by Gibbs with Frisell & Co. contributing the late-hours jazz colour. The orchestra soon catches up, though appearing to have arrived by a different route.

Frisell and the trio also make the early going in both his Rag and Electricity. In the former, the trio moves along interestingly, but it’s soon party time and the orchestra gatecrashes the event as if determined not to lower its merriment, and Gibbs the orchestrator prevents that by making it sound like a musical theatre pit band, or a jazz orchestra with strings; in the latter, the trio is soon into its stride but the orchestra takes over, coming on heavy with a descending seven-note figure, oft repeated. The arrangement of Frisell’s Throughout is a case of sonic overload and textural impasto. But there are positives: orchestra and trio work together better on Ron Carter’s Doom for a Gibbs arrangement that resembles a film score; on his ambitious Sweet Rain, Gibbs allows Frisell’s guitar to peruse what’s on offer and become an integral part of the music; it’s a while before Frisell states the theme of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer unadorned, as Gibbs subverts it with impinging harmonic touches.

The Umbria orchestra has just one stringed instrument, a lone cello and that maybe is not employed everywhere. Gibbs’s weave makes for clarity and space in which Frisell’s spare, almost laconic, style is given air to breathe. Royston dictates the movement of Lookout For Hope, the orchestra chiming in and following where the trio leads. The orchestra adds heat and intensity to the bluesy Levees, and in Strange Meeting its brass raises the pitch before allowing Frisell’s echoing lines to take the tune forwards. Doom in this version sounds even more like brooding film music. What’s going on around that seven-note motif on Electricity sounds much clearer, and the relaxed country and western feel of Monica Jane established by the trio infects the orchestra when it enters. We Shall Overcome, like Beautiful Dreamer on disc one, has a deliberately unadorned theme, this time taken up by the orchestra while in its service Frisell maintains his fastidious but always keenly felt persona.

The Brussels programme was commissioned by the Muziekcentrum De Bijloke, the cultural centre Flagey and the Brussels Philharmonic for its Jazz Meets Symphonic series.

CD1: (1) Nocturne Vulgaire; Lush Life; Doom; Rag; Throughout; Electricity; Sweet Rain; Richter 858, No 7; Beautiful Dreamer (46.23)
CD2: (2) Lookout For Hope; Levees; Strange Meeting; Doom; Electricity; Monica Jane; We Shall Overcome (40.16)

(1) Frisell (elg); Thomas Morgan (b); Rudy Royston (d); Alexander Hanson (cond); Brussels Philharmonic. Belgium, 23-24 September 2022.
(2) as (1) but Umbria Jazz Orchestra replaces Brussels Philharmonic and Manuele Morbidini replaces Hanson. Orvieto, Italy, 30 December, 2021 – 1 January 2022.
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