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Bill Frisell and Julian Lage Trade Licks at UCLA

December 9, 2019

UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

Bill Frisell — the 68-year-old guitarmeister who has been a living definition of the word “protean” — has absorbed and transformed more idioms of music than one can fit in a single review, let alone a sentence. Same with Julian Lage, who turns 32 on Christmas Day yet has packed in a lifetime’s worth of playing experience already.

So what happens when you put the two of them — and just the two of them — together onto the Royce Hall stage Thursday night (Dec. 5) with a bare-bones arsenal of two electric guitars, two small Fender amps, and no effects devices that I could see or hear? Plenty, for their imaginations and techniques were more than enough to fill 90 minutes of often-inspired flights into and around some standards, jazz tunes, and whatnot on-the-fly.

“Whatever this is, it sure feels good,” Frisell cracked toward the close of the set. Well what it was, was jazz if you had to slap a label on it, but a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness strain of jazz without the structure of a typical jam session. You have to have total coordination of ears and fingers to be able to play this way, concentrating upon what your jam partner is doing every second and reacting instantly, sometimes responding to a particular lick, sometimes changing the subject and leading the train of thought elsewhere.

How much of this was premeditated and worked out ahead of the concert is hard to know, but the session started with what sounded like random, pinpoint, atonal harmonics as if they were feeling each other out without a road map at first. Gradually, their wanderings coalesced into something coherent with jazz harmonies, their musical personalities intertwining quite naturally with each other. The next tune eventually emerged as a blues, however artfully disguised.

If anything, Lage was somewhat more of a live wire in this session than the composed, spare Frisell, occasionally spinning solo lines that reminded me a bit of Les Paul. At one point toward the close of the first number, Lage took off on his own as Frisell watched, running through a convoluted solo. When Lage was through, Frisell wittily capped it with just a single, perfectly-placed chord. Jam over. Nice!

Soon the two felt their way into some recognizable tunes like “All the Things You Are,” constructed with intricate interplay as a tribute to Frisell’s late, venerated teacher Jim Hall, who would have turned 89 the day before. The folk song “Shenandoah” started out in a trance, leading to some single lines with gorgeous tone quality. Gradually they rambled into Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” and going further back in jazz time, the pair worked up a good steady groove in the old Benny Goodman/Charlie Christian showcase “Seven Come Eleven,” with Lage swinging hard over Frisell’s chordings. Finally, after an elaborate solo intro by Lage, the pair concluded the evening with an intimate “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

In general, this set didn’t venture nearly as far beyond stylistic boundaries as these two explorers are capable of traveling. Yet their playing was easy to listen to and follow, a graceful, simpatico meeting of generations.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.

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