There were birdcalls on the sound system as the audience filed in for Bill Frisell and Joey Baron’s outstanding Jazz at the Lobero show on Saturday night, and the birds filled the hall with just the right ambience of natural beauty to prepare everyone for what was to come. The guitar and drums were set up facing one another, with Frisell surrounded by electronics and Baron spending most of the night beaming a contagious ear-to-ear grin as he sat facing his guitarist. These two avant-garde jazz veterans heard one another’s every least gesture, and the resulting stream of sound was like one musical mind broadcasting in glorious instrumental stereo.
They started out slow and dreamy, with Frisell building into a spiritual that was gone almost as soon as it appeared. From there the electronics kicked in, giving the spare duet arrangements more crunch. Throughout the evening the musically savvy crowd was given plenty to wonder at, as the pair wailed, strutted, shimmied, and swung a wide swath through some of the 20th century’s greatest popular songs. From “Alfie” to “Masters of War,” Frisell and Baron kept them coming without once telegraphing an entrance or letting the melodies linger even a bar too long.
Frisell can play a verse as though he were enunciating the lyrics just by his intonation. From the composer who told me that Frisell always seems to leave out a certain chord in the Gershwin, to the singer who wept at the open emotionality of the segue from “Masters of War” to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” everyone seemed to be in awe of the directness and mastery of this guitarist in bringing especially popular songs to life.
Not that there weren’t some fireworks as well. In the second of three encores, Frisell and Baron locked into an inexorable, droning ostinato until it began to open up and breathe musical fire. Baron has a way of leaving out so much that you think there can’t be anything of the tune’s rhythmic structure left, then nailing the downbeat the moment before it all slides over into chaos. He clearly loves feeding Frisell’s consummate artistry, and together they make a formidable sound, more than enough to fill the Lobero with almost two hours of clarity, focus, and soul.