Sometimes you’d think Bill Frisell was a singer rather than a guitarist. You have to reach back across the decades to a Miles Davis or a Ben Webster to find comparable mastery of the art of making a lyric come to life without a word being sung. Instead those words resonated and echoed during his June visit here in the strings of his electric guitar, whether stripped back to homespun simplicity, or having their inbuilt enigmas amplified by electronic effects. With bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, Frisell excavated improbable commonalities of beauty and vulnerability in songs as diverse as You Only Live Twice, Blowin’ in the Wind and Lush Life. Among the paths to high art is self-effacement.
Others, too, saw how paring back could expose raw nerves and deep truths. The Phil Slater Quintet crafted latticeworks of entirely acoustic sounds: whispered, layered conversations; shadow-lands of eerie melody, in which the sadness welled up until it had to find expression in Slater’s trumpet. Pianist Barney McAll brilliantly unravelled the knots and gnarls of Thelonious Monk’s music, and accordionist/pianist Gary Daly’s genre-defying Bungarribee quartet meticulously unstitched compositions by such adventurers as Ligetti, Bartok and Sculthorpe.
Some mighty singers came to town. Veronica Swift may essentially be a bebopper, but that doesn’t begin to suggest how new and hip she sounded, fizzing with virtuosity and supreme musicality. Lisa Fischer (of Rolling Stones fame) was oddly pedestrian to begin, and then suddenly shot into a vocal stratosphere where rock, Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, soul and jazz elements fused, so even Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song could be reborn as a world-music sonic dream. Jennifer Holiday crossed between R&B and Broadway, deploying a voice that could crack a Sydney apartment block at 50 metres, while flying up from an opulent contralto to an exquisitely restrained mezzo range.