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Michael Gibbs & the NDR Bigband: Play a Bill Frisell Set List

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Throughout Bill Frisell’s prolific recording career, what goes around tends to come around, as youthful encounters and long-held fascinations inspire new studio projects and concert collaborations. Serendipity played a significant role in the guitarist’s introduction to Rhodesia-born composer-arranger Michael Gibbs’ music back in 1968. Frisell was hoping to see Wes Montgomery perform at Red Rocks in Colorado, but the guitar legend died a few weeks prior to the concert. The Newport Jazz Festival-produced program offered other enticements though. A performance by the Gary Burton Quartet made a profound impression on Frisell, who was immediately drawn to the Gil Evans-tinted harmonic approach within the Gibbs material the band played. In 1975 Frisell went off to study at Berklee, where, not coincidentally, Gibbs was teaching. The two have since become close friends and occasional, well-matched collaborators, as the NDR Bigband’s recent release, Play a Bill Frisell Set List, colorfully illustrates.

The unenviable task of whittling Frisell’s sprawling catalog into something manageable onstage for this 2013 Hamburg concert-and something representative to boot-fell to Gibbs. Turns out that was the easy part, though. The biggest challenge lay in devising arrangements that consistently underscore Frisell’s talents, as a player, composer and interpreter, while at the same time showcasing the Bigband’s formidable soloists and wide-ranging dynamics. Fortunately, Gibbs’ previous work with the Bigband, in similar “special guest” settings, serves him well. Playing a Telecaster-style guitar and abetted by guest drummer Jeff Ballard, Frisell is clearly inspired by Gibbs’ handiwork, and the same holds true for the Bigband, as it moves through a series of passionate, painterly and exuberant performances.

Several tunes are drawn from recent (or semi-recent) Frisell releases. Among them is the swing-era delight “Benny’s Bugle,” which finds Frisell, Ballard and trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt saluting Charlie Christian and company with light-footed, lighthearted aplomb. By contrast, “Throughout,” a seminal Frisell composition, triggers an explosive opening salvo, mightily fueled by tenor saxophonist Christof Lauer. Frisell’s “Freddy’s Step,” the album’s joyously parading closer, is another highlight, generating waves of rhythmically skewed funk. The most compelling, fully realized ensemble performance, though, is Gibbs’ insinuating treatment of the Evans-penned portrait “Las Vegas Tango.” It proceeds from whisper to shout to bop-ish fade and segue. In stark contrast to orchestral colors and clout, the stealthy teaming of Frisell and Ballard on “Misterioso” punctuates the concert with a wonderfully evocative, Monk-meets-Raymond Chandler interlude.

“Misterioso” also appears on the Gibbs/Bigband’s companion release, In My View. Yet, like most of the music arranged and conducted by Gibbs for this studio session, the treatment is colorfully expansive, designed to accommodate the ensemble’s impressive roster of soloists. In this instance, drummer Adam Nussbaum and trombonists Dan Gottshall, Sebastian Hoffmann and Stefan Lottermann help infuse the Monk tune with a jolt of Crescent City swagger. In similarly kinetic fashion, the ensemble brings surging hard-bop drive to Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’,” with alto saxophonist Peter Bolte leading the way. Carla Bley is also affectionately represented, via her noir-ish vignette “Ida Lupino,” and rounding out the session are four diverse compositions by Gibbs that radiate a signature blend of lyricism and verve.

Originally Published