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Bill Frisell performed When You Wish Upon A Star to open Melbourne International Jazz Festival and it was an absolute treat

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with a mesmerising opening night gig. MIJF CEO, Jennifer Kerr introduced the evening with a little back story on her history with the festival, the breadth of music on this year’s program, and the fact that she’s waited for Bill Frisell to return to Melbourne since she’s been at the helm – Kerr’s excitement became our excitement. We were then given a Wominjeka with a brief history of Melbourne’s relationship with its traditional owners.

With Luke Howard on piano, a local quartet warmed up the crowd with four pieces of music that went from relaxing bedtime jams through to moments of hectic action. Intermission arrived, giving the crowd just enough time to shuffle past one another, leave the auditorium, take a breath, then shuffle back in.  
 
Bill Frisell arrived onstage and was much more modest than his resume would suggest – having played guitar alongside Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s hard to classify Frisell. ‘Jazz guitarist’ does the job, even though he’s handled avant-garde, noise, bop, folk and rock with ease. His current lineup saw him flanked by vocalist Petra Haden (Beck, Foo Fighters), Thomas Morgan on bass (Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet) and drummer Rudy Royston (Branford Marsalis, The Mingus Big Band).
 
In a way, it’s a good thing fans knew Frisell’s 2016 album When You Wish Upon a Star would be the main focus of the performance – otherwise his repertoire could literally take us anywhere. It’s important that a guitarist like Frisell has a tight brief – constraints that let him play within a more rigid genre than the openness of jazz. The album is Frisell’s interpretation of his favourite scores and songs from film and TV. This broad range included pieces from To Kill a Mockingbird, Once Upon a Time in the West, Bonanza, a (rather sad) song from Charlie Brown and James Bond songs from Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice.
 
From opening with Moon River, to ending the night with two encores, Frisell and his band showed virtuosity within the constraints of serving the songs. They showed the importance of dynamics and let each other take the lead in different movements. Watching Frisell made me realise that there’s no point in trying to pin down his style of what ‘jazz’ is – when a guy can go from a delicate moment that conjures Eric Clapton’s best to Thee Oh Sees’ space junk freakout, it’s obvious that Frisell will bust out of any a box you try and put him in.
 
By Naj