You won’t see any test tubes, flasks, or Bunsen burners on the SFJazz Center’s Miner Auditorium stage next week, but make no mistake, when Bill Frisell is in town, his temporary Bay Area home turns into a bustling sonic laboratory.
In the midst of his second year as one of SFJazz’s five resident artistic directors, the guitarist-composer has taken full advantage of the institution’s considerable resources. A vastly influential and protean artist who has delved deeply into several currents of American roots music, he’s presented his most ambitious multi-media projects, including evening-length works inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” and the surreal graphics of Jim Woodring. He’s also engineered a series of intimate bandstand encounters with fellow visionaries such as pianist Geri Allen, saxophonist Greg Osby, guitarist Marc Ribot and pianist Jason Moran (who’s also an SFJazz resident artistic director).
"They’ve let me try all these different things," Frisell, 62, says from his home in Seattle. "I’ll just tell SFJazz founder and Executive/Artistic Director) Randall Kline what I’m thinking, and he says go for it. So many of them are firsts, planting seeds for things I want to be doing."
Frisell opens his next four-night SFJazz Center run Thursday, presenting a different configuration at each concert. The most significant seed he’s planting is a new trio with drummer Kenny Wollesen and keyboardist Craig Taborn that debuts Sunday afternoon. A Santa Cruz native, Wollesen has served as the rhythmic spark for more than half a dozen Frisell ensembles over the years, but Taborn has never previously participated in one of the guitarist’s projects.
Frisell first met and played with Taborn on saxophonist David Binney’s 2006 album “Out of Airplanes” (Mythology Records) “and what he was doing totally freaked me out,” Frisell says. “After that, every time I’d hear him or get to play with him the context was so different, but he always did something extraordinary.”
Long respected as a bracing improviser with an interest in composing for electronics, Taborn has become one of jazz’s most sought-after collaborators in recent years. His reputation as an intrepid musical explorer has spread to new music circles, and last February he followed an SFJazz concert in bassist Dave Holland’s all-star quartet Prism with a solo performance and residency at the new music festival Other Minds (he returns to the Bay Area for a performance at the Other Minds 19 gala at Duende on Feb. 27). His trio album “Chants” (ECM) recently earned the No. 2 spot in the 2013 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.
A Frisell fanatic since his mid-teens, when he saw the guitarist play solo and duo with the recently deceased master Jim Hall at the Walker Arts Center in his native Minneapolis, Taborn describes the guitarist’s music as central to his creative development. If their first encounter at the Dave Binney recording session left Frisell freaked, Taborn came away with fresh insight into how deeply Frisell shaped his musical sensibility.
"That first time playing with Bill I was struck by how strong his vocabulary is," Taborn says. "Everyone who’s played with him notices that. The other revelation was how heavily informed by his approach I am, in terms of my aesthetic about comping and my sense of how to encounter musical spaces. Over the years, I had almost forgotten that the way I hear music has a lot to do with Bill. He’d probably blush to hear that."
None of Frisell’s many ensembles better capture his unabashed lyricism and gift for melodic invention than the Big Sur Quintet, which opens his SFJazz run on Thursday. Featuring Humboldt County violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston, the band first came together for a 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival commission that Frisell documented on 2013’s “Big Sur” (Sony Masterworks). He wrote most of the music during a MJF residency at the Glen Deven Ranch, and the music feels as shimmering and majestic as a misty dawn on Big Sur’s craggy coast.
The music has continued to evolve over the past year while the ensemble performed widely on the road. The string players were already well versed in his group arranging process through numerous concerts as Frisell’s 858 Quartet, a group he created to play music inspired by Gerhard Richter’s paintings. Rather than supplying the ensemble with a full musical blueprint, Frisell leaves many choices up to the players so that movements unfold differently each night.
"A bunch of that music is written so you have options as to which part you play, and there’s no arrangement in terms of who plays what when," says Scheinman, who’s been at the center of Frisell’s musical world for the past decade. "It’s ensemble improvisation, but not through content. We’ve developed ways of supporting each other and keeping the interlocking parts going so we get this churning thing where we don’t have to stop to let one person rise above it."
On Saturday, Frisell plays solo, a context in which he’s at his most unpredictable and unfettered. And on Friday, he presents a quartet featuring Wollesen, string wizard Greg Liesz on pedal and lap steel guitars, and bassist Tony Scher, longtime Frisell collaborators who are coming together in this particular configuration for the first time.
Building on a concept inspired by jazz-inflected country guitar greats Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, Frisell will bring the band into the studio in the weeks following the concert.
"Greg and I played on a Lucinda Williams record a little while ago, and he didn’t play pedal at all, just regular guitar, and it was so much fun," Frisell says. "We can both play full out, and we never have to watch out about stepping on each other’s toes."