Since Abbey Road came out in 1969, you’ve heard “Come Together” no less than a zillion times. Last night at Jazz Alley, Bill Frisell took the the song into unprecedented territory, finding new life, strangeness, even danger in a tune typically withered by overfamiliarity. Frisell’s 80-minute set—the first of four consecutive nights at Jazz Alley, two shows a night, now til Sunday—was comprised entirely of Lennon tunes, pop-music standards turned inside out and stretched into cosmic-Americana jazz territory by the Seattle-based guitarist and his facile band of drums, bass and steel guitar. Performances like this, ostensibly a comfortable indulgence but actually a challenging reconfiguration, keep jazz vital and accessible. Frisell deserves not only immense credit but eager audiences.
Opener “Across the Universe” was the most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard in ages, alone worth the price of admission. Frisell picked and strummed the lyrical melody while steel guitarist Greg Leisz pulled bent chords and ambient moans from his instrument. Tony Scherr plucked a subtle, woody bassline from his upright and drummer Kenny Wollesen painted with brushstrokes around the edges of the tune. From the poignant mid-song melody, the band launched into a space-shot crescendo, gauzy with steel guitar, riveted by Frisell’s radiant guitar tone. Abstracted and expanded as it was, the outtro could’ve gone on forever, such was its peaceful uplift.
Hearing these songs played instrumentally, sans lyrics—”You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Julia,” especially “In My Life”—was a revelation. Lennon is most often lauded for the immediacy and poetry of his lyrics, but here were his melodies laid bare, emphasized by Frisell’s masterful arrangements. As he played “In My Life,” certainly every person in the room (boomers mostly, interspersed with a few 30-somethings and very-olds) was certainly singing along silently. These internalized lyrics, implied by Frisell and supplied individually, were more personal than if they were delivered by a vocalist. The sensation was of reading the novelization of a beloved movie: The outlines were already there but now we could them in with our own details, our own voices. The effect was devastating, free of cliche or sentimentality.
Frisell had the superficial appearance of a college professor, white hair neatly kempt, round tortoiseshell glasses, buttown-down shirt untucked underneath a sleeveless cardinan. But his demeanor was more workmanlike than intellectual, like the senior manager at the auto parts store who determines the part you’re asking about with the barest description. He returns from the storeroom smiling beatifically—”This is the thing you need!”—and you’re amazed at his intuition and casual expertise. He’s just doing his job. He was turned towards the band for the entire performance, all four locked in and laughing together through the set.
The band closed with “Strawberry Fields,” and more than a few eyes in the crowd were wet with tears. As with “Across the Universe,” they took the extended outtro into dissonant, ethereal territory. These song arrangements, the mournful beauty of the steel guitar, Frisell’s obvious gratitude and admiration for the source material, the triumph and tragedy of Lennon’s life—it all overwhelmed. Understated as they were, Frisell’s interpretations of these classic songs evoked worlds of emotion.