Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet may be promoted as a new project, the latest ensemble to give creative dimension to one of the most original though unassuming guitarists of our day. In reality, the group – and the sublime performance it gave last night at the Clifton Center in Louisville – is simply a new assimilation, a reconfigured gathering of familiar performance elements and personnel. Its initial repertoire was written, recorded and debuted last year in California then released in recorded form last May as the album Big Sur.
Like so many Frisell concerts modeled after recording projects, the music possessed a trance-like feel with layers of echoing melody propelled by bits of power chord groove. The evening’s two sets were performed as suites with little, if any, gaps. They utilized a group that matched Frisell’s usually abstract inclined 808 Quartet (violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and Frisell himself) with the ultra resourceful drummer Rudy Royston (who played the Clifton s recently as September with jazz trumpet journeyman Dave Douglas).
Whereas past Frisell trio and quartet groups created ambient soundscapes that drifted in and out of Americana and folk driven works by Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan others, last night’s quintet used original themes from Big Sur as reference points. The Music of Glen Deven Ranch, for instance, used a simple descending guitar melody that glided alongside patient arpeggios from the strings. The sound simply chimed with Royston guiding the tempo.
But it was on the brief, sleepy, Scheinman-led melody of We All Love Neil Young (which brought to mind, of all things, the 1972 Gilbert O’Sullivan pop hit Alone Again, Naturally) that the quintet got crafty. That’s because the tune bled into Song For Lana Weeks, which was essentially the same melody shaded by the more aged, autumnal tone of Roberts’ cello lead.
Frisell sat between the strings and the drums, preferring to color the group sounds and occasional outbursts (like the surf rock joyride of The Big One) over extended solos. He afforded himself some giddy instrumental grinding at the show’s conclusion, but not before leading the quintet through an almost ballet-like reading of the melancholy Beach Boys classic In My Room. The melody was a concise reminder that when the right inspiration, ensemble spirit and sense of musical adventure are in place, no one catches a wave quite like Frisell.