BILL FRISELL | London, Barbican

In some ways Bill Frisell’s Guitar in the Space Age concert for the EFG London Jazz Festival 2014 felt like an archetypical jazz standards gig, with pop songs of yesteryear being reharmonised and significantly extended in length by virtuosic instrumentalists. Yet any post-bebop language that appeared was drowned out by a reverence for the harmonic simplicity of the 1950s surf instrumentals that made up most of the source material. There were some distinct solos, but in general the instruments weaved in and out of each other, creating a fluid wall of sound that updated the futuristic vision of the space age for an audience that has lived through expansive stadium rock.

Somewhat suspiciously, Frisell and his band managed to do this without help from post-1960s machinery, as instrumental expertise and imagination made up for their (relative) Luddism. While the polished playing on show made the original songs look slightly crude by comparison, the fact that Link Wray and the other guitar heroes being honoured all embraced the studio innovations of the day highlights how Frisell’s technological conservatism might not be entirely fitting with the spirit of the music. Still, the sharp brushwork of Kenny Woolleson and raw twang of Frisell’s Telecaster prevented the swelling, tonal textures from becoming saccharine, and the playful nostalgia was pitched perfectly. One of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite songs, “Telstar” by The Tornados, was worked into an epic ten minute soundscape, with Greg Weisz’s pedal steel, an instrument criminally underused outside of Nashville, taking the song’s cartoonish melody to the joyously stratospheric heights the piece was written to reflect.

However, the other nod to British music, an interpretation of the Bond theme “You Only Live Twice”, drifted aimlessly after receiving its customary murmur of recognition. Their endless repetition of the iconic orchestral intro makes one consider that Robbie Williams might have captured the original’s glossy vibe more succinctly and entertainingly back in 1999 with “Millennium”. But this was a rare dull moment in a masterful display of musical skill and restraint. The affably haphazard Sam Amidon, who scats a Chet Baker solo in between two songs, provided accomplished indie-folk support in a night that brought some reassuringly retro sounds of Americana to the polite concert hall of East London.

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