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Guitars Gone Crazy: Frisell, Cantuária and the Celestial Septet

Review of two shows in Baltimore, Md.: Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuária at An Die Musik LIVE!; The Celestial Septet at The Windup Space

Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuária

An Die Musik LIVE!; Baltimore, Md.; Feb. 21, 2011

The Celestial Septet

The Windup Space; Baltimore, Md.; Feb. 27, 2011

Guitarist Bill Frisell works in what might be termed jazz’s pin-drop aesthetic. If the point of post-Coltrane sax is to overwhelm you into a state of elation with volume and virtuosity, Frisell’s aim is to achieve the same results through the opposite tack. Everything he plays seems melodic, even when he’s at his most abstruse, and his delivery is lucid yet lullaby-soft. (His versatility is another thing altogether. A lot of jazz pickers play delicately and selflessly, but Jim Hall or Charlie Byrd never played avant-metal with John Zorn, too.) Frisell much sooner brings to mind Bill Evans’ trios or Keith Jarrett’s solo recitals or bossa nova than he summons up the vices of the electric guitar.

Bossa nova was more than an evocation last week in Baltimore, where Frisell and Brazilian-born singer and guitarist Vinicius Cantuária played three shows: one on a Sunday at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and two sets on the following Monday at the acoustically charmed An Die Musik LIVE!. Monday’s early set was an exhibition of empathy-in the interplay, in the shared temperament and in the way of deep listening.

The pair mixed instrumentals and vocal numbers and played from Lágrimas Mexicanas (E-One), their excellent new disc that features co-written songs and covers a wide range of Latin terrain. The album is very skillfully produced: It contains some of that world-music sheen but isn’t overly slick, with sparse arrangements that tastefully utilize Frisell’s electronics and Cantuária’s percussion. But this recital distilled the collaboration to its bare essence of melody, elegant rhythm and seamless exchange, imagining a sort of post-modernized duo date by Hall and João Gilberto.

Cantuária is a striking talent whose lithe, murmuring vocals embody the romance of bossa nova, even when his nylon-string guitar playing moves from the svelte time-keeping of Brazilian music toward the harder-edged thrust of flamenco. Frisell, with Telecaster and Fender amp, was his usual self-at once remarkably versatile and utterly unique. Whether playing the texturalist and doubling lines with Cantuária on “Mi Declaración,” delicately coloring and reprising the sung melody on the gorgeous “El Camino,” or taking lengthy solos that skillfully mixed single-note lines and harmonically advanced chordal improvisation, everything Frisell played seemed reactive-a reflection of how keenly he listened-and impeccably placed, and he once again embodied the ethos of less-is-more. (Just hearing him gently outline the harmony of a tune, or fall in and out of unison lines with Cantuária, was more satisfying than the most extravagant solo.) His tone was glassy and shimmering, per usual, but he mostly left the effects alone and was subsequently less finicky.

The following Sunday at Baltimore’s Windup Space, guitar effects were frequently manipulated at a gig by the Celestial Septet, a combination of the Nels Cline Singers and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. The set, challenging and discordant but also often beautiful, seemed to buck the usual disparagement leveled at the jazz avant-garde while wholeheartedly occupying the genre. This was organized, ambitious music, full of freewheeling improvisation but also strategy and composition. (A series of avant-freakouts this was not: The program consisted of a democratic mix of music by individual ensemble members, who conducted via hand signals and gestures.) “César Chávez,” with its blend of fuguelike melody and harmony and Ascension-style fracas, acted as a telling opener, foreshadowing the mix of tumult and grace that would mark the rest of the night.

There were typical out-jazz moves mastered: Singers drummer Scott Amendola provided timpani-like timbres with mallets and spent plenty of time circling the kit in Sunny Murray-mode. Singers bassist Trevor Dunn used arco technique dynamically, conveying cello-like melancholy and adding sonic scrim by bowing above and below the bridge. Cline was virtuosic on a couple fronts, in both the speed and agility of his legato-heavy playing and the audacity of his noise experiments. (He manipulates a stompbox like an expert turntablist tweaks his mixer.)

The ROVA quartet-Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, Jon Raskin and Bruce Ackley-blew with chamberlike eloquence on some section parts but also gave a clinic in the extended techniques of the avant-garde: slap tonguing, squeaking, over-blowing, long tones and the like. The compositions had a clever knack for breaking the larger ensemble down into sub-bands, which at one point allowed ROVA to disappear and then re-emerge among the audience, horns in hand. With his affecting Ayler-like vibrato, tenor player Ochs was the most distinctive stylist, though ROVA was certainly a unit: On tunes like the fractured, stunted postbop of Adams’ “Trouble Ticket,” it was difficult to attribute each blip and bleep to the individual horns.

This set was something to write home about from start to finish, and it was just a portion of the action in Baltimore last weekend: There was also a duo gig featuring Lafayette Gilchrist and William Parker with guest multireedist John Dieker, as well as performances by the Matthew Shipp Trio and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Thanks to some strong grassroots promotion, Baltimore is happening.

Originally Published