Bill Frisell at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), Tuesday (July 19). $32.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
There've been many adventurous jazz sessions among the stylistically diverse recordings released by genre-defying guitarist Bill Frisell in his 20-plus-year career. So it's a bit ironic that last year's Unspeakable (Nonesuch) disc - a sample-enriched excursion into funky R&B - would earn him a Grammy for best contemporary jazz album.
Perplexing, yes, but then again, any slightly experimental album with even a hint of improvisation would naturally sound more like jazz alongside the smooth schlock perpetrated by Frisell's fellow Grammy nominees Fourplay, Jan Garbarek and Don Grusin. And the way Frisell describes how Unspeakable came together, it seems like spontaneous interaction was crucial in the creation process.
It began with producer Hal Willner digging into the collection of obscure sound library recordings that the long-time Saturday Night Live music director inherited from NBC when the television station foolishly purged its irreplaceable vinyl holdings during the switch to digital.
"He shipped boxes and boxes of those records to a studio in Los Angeles," explains a bemused Frisell, "so there was literally a whole room filled with them. Hal started by making these loops of bits and pieces he sampled, and I'd play guitar up against them. The rhythm section would follow along with the groove, and then we'd remove the sampled part.
"We'd also work in reverse, where I would begin by playing a figure on guitar and Hal would flip through his records and try dropping pieces onto what I was doing until it sounded right. It was easily the longest album-making process I'd ever been involved in. I usually go into the studio with a band and we record everything live in a couple of days. Unspeakable took a whole year to finish."
Despite the lengthy, labour-intensive method of making Unspeakable, there's a wonderful playfulness to the album that you rarely get from Frisell's own recordings. Willner also brought out a funky side of Frisell (the track Alias verges on Afrobeat) that few people, if any, knew existed.
"I guess you're right. It's more the kind of stuff I grew up playing back when I was in high school R&B bands than what I'm known for now. So somewhere deep inside me I guess a little bit of funk was still there.
"As for the Afrobeat thing, I've listened to that music for years and I love it, but I can't really play it. I have, however, worked with some great Malian guitarists, like Djelimady Tounkara and Boubacar Traoré, and I've tried to steal whatever I could."
Since the band Frisell will be bringing to Toronto for the Phoenix show - featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, steel guitar ace Greg Leisz, banjo boss Danny Barnes and bassist David Piltch - doesn't include a drummer, it won't be easy for Frisell to recreate the groove-heavy sound of Unspeakable, but he's willing to give it a shot. He's all about taking risks.
"We're going to be doing some new arrangements of older material, maybe a couple of things from the forthcoming live album and a few brand new songs that haven't been recorded yet.
"If Jenny and I take the string parts and David and Greg act as the rhythm section, using Danny on banjo as the drummer, I think we might be able to do one or two songs from Unspeakable, although," he chuckles,"I doubt if anyone will recognize what we come up with." email@example.com