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A Stew of Americana Served Up as a Serene Soundtrack

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January 31, 2006

New York Guitar Festival Review | Bill Frisell

A Stew of Americana Served Up as a Serene Soundtrack


Bill Frisell's music easily became a soundtrack when it accompanied images by the cartoonist Jim Woodring at Zankel Hall on Sunday night. A little too easily, perhaps. Billed as a multimedia collaboration, the concert led Mr. Frisell back to the wistful, reticent, watercolor arrangements he has regularly visited on his own.

Both Mr. Frisell and Mr. Woodring make the familiar unfamiliar. In Mr. Frisell's compositions, cozy, archetypal Americana — country tunes, blues, waltzes — is slowed down, melted at the edges, eerily reharmonized or disassembled and contemplated part by part. Mr. Woodring's work, in the tradition of 1960's underground comic books, sets homely characters (notably a puffy-cheeked cat named Frank) in hallucinatory landscapes populated by strange, biomorphic emanations.

Mr. Woodring and Mr. Frisell have collaborated before, building on each other's images and music with "Mysterio Simpatico" in 2002. This reunion apparently used more ready-made materials. For the first part of the concert, Mr. Woodring provided slowly changing still images. Then came animated Frank cartoons from Japan, with Mr. Frisell's music substituted for their original soundtracks.

Mr. Frisell, on guitar, led his 858 Quartet — with Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola and Hank Roberts on cello — plus Ron Miles on cornet and Greg Tardy on saxophone and clarinet. With this group, Mr. Frisell leans toward chamber music: hovering chords or pizzicato patterns from the strings, gentle melodies and an occasional flurry of improvisation from the horns. He plays guitar with preternatural smoothness, wafting notes into existence with barely a hint of attack, teasing out melodies or warming the harmonies with sustained chords.

The group played Mr. Frisell's own pieces and idiosyncratic versions of "You Are My Sunshine" and "What the World Needs Now." There was a bluesy waltz that allowed Mr. Miles's muted cornet to growl a little; a drone-based piece in which Mr. Kang played raga-like viola lines; harmonically convoluted ballads; transparent contrapuntal mobiles; and tunes with hints of country fiddle and of jazzy swing, though nothing too pushy. Delicate and leisurely, the music seemed to float in suspended gravity. Only one piece, with a bebop guitar lick set against the strings lilting a chromatic scale, sounded anything like typical cartoon music.

Mr. Frisell's pensive, constrained pieces played against films that have Frank always on the move, surrounded by metamorphoses. They were homey and soothing rather than footloose, and they would have been more vivid on their own. On Sunday, they were usually overshadowed by a cartoon cat.

The New York Guitar Festival continues through Feb. 8.

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