Bill Frisell and Julian Lage: Whatever this is…

“What a joy to…”

Bill Frisell paused briefly as he sought the right words for his feelings about the electric guitar duos he’d been playing with Julian Lage at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday. He gave up quickly.

“Whatever this is,” he concluded with a sheepish shrug.

Frankly, he couldn’t have said it better. 

Watching these two masters play together, it was as impossible to fully comprehend what they were doing, as much as it was impossible to comprehend that what they were doing was on just 12 strings, played by just four hands, the harmonic complexities of the combination often defying musical physics. At times it seemed even they were as mystified not just by what it was, but how it even could be. You could see it in their faces, especially on the face of Frisell, 68, whose sweetness and kindness matches his huge talents, marveling at what Lage, a veteran at just 31, was wringing from the neck of his Telecaster. Sometimes Frisell sat out and just watched his young partner, beaming with a broad grin.

For us in the audience it was a grin-fest as well. The adventurous virtuosity (a word that seems inadequate for this meshing of their artistry) was spiked at all times by both parties’ playfulness. Lage in particular would head off into dazzling displays that brought both squeals of astonishment and peals of delighted laughter, Frisell parrying with his own spritely, if more genteel, sparkle. 

This was there no matter what they were playing, be it some 12-bar blues or idiosyncratic Monk (is there any other kind?). Threading it all together were various standards, including “All the Things You Are,” in homage to Jim Hall, whose spirit both of them hold, and an idyllic stroll through “Shenandoah,” something of a Frisell signature, here given a fresh skip from Lage’s shining sense of wonder.

Strolling, for that matter, makes a good descriptive for their approach to it all. They went on strolls together.

“We’re going to find our way to another song,” Lage said, introducing “Shenandoah.” (And now you’ve read nearly everything that they spoke in the course of the show). 

Usually one of them would begin solo, sometimes after a chuckle-bringing Alphonse and Gaston moment  (“You start.” “No, you start.” “No, please, YOU start.”). Improvising, they would move from dissonant (though never discordant) to melodic (though never mawkish) without a seeming care, as if those are just different aspects of the same thing. And in their loving care they are. 

There was one frustration, though visual, not musical, as it was impossible (there’s that word again) to watch both players at once. Any time you’d look at one of their hands, the other was certain to do something incredible. So then you’d switch to him, and the other would do something unbelievable. For the whole show. Oh well, such is the price.

And you gotta love a duo that with the encore, after a transfixing 90 minutes of probing, prodding and teasing into new musical spaces of expression, sends the audience out humming the Snow White classic “Someday My Prince Will Come.” 

A joy to whatever this is, indeed.

For a sense of what this is, here’s a video of a complete 2018 show by the pair:

Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams: Masters and Marvels

By Steve Hochman (Photos by Peggy French)

“Let me ask you one question…”

Lucinda Williams wasn’t mincing any (of Bob Dylan’s) words when she sang “Masters of War” Friday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Charles Lloyd took it way beyond words. And the words may not exist to adequately describe the wonders of the band, the aptly named Marvels — Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on steel, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums — that sax-and-flute man Lloyd has brought together in recent years and showcased this electrifying night, with Williams as special guest.

Questions, mysteries — the Big Questions and the Great Glorious Mysteries — are to be expected at a time that has seen a rare convergence of Passover and Holy Week. But a week with both MOAB and Easter is the opposite, a time of disconnects, of distressing questions. Of  confusion and despair.

But if you are looking for a way to connect it all, if not provide answers or make sense, you would be hard-pressed to do better than with the three-song sequence that concluded this, yes, glorious concert. “Masters of War,” with its simmering, bitter anger, provided a climactic peak to the show, Williams joining Lloyd and band for the latter portion of the set. And then, the encore brought the persistence of determination-driven faith and hard-won renewal with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and, returning to Dylan, “I Shall Be Released.” There we had it, the Seder tale and Easter story encapsulated in a, pardon the expression, trinity of song.

What came prior to this righteous culmination Friday night was no less, well, masterful and marvelous. In the hour or so before Williams joined in, Lloyd and the Marvels expounded and expanded on the genre-less explorations captured on their 2016 album, “I Long to See You.” It, too, is all about connections, even more clearly and profoundly in this concert as they all have gone deeper into their considerable, collective talents. This is a group that was able to go from the skittery joy of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” and Lloyd’s loping mid-‘60s classic “Sombrero Sam”  to the somber solitude of Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood” and, profoundly, Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” with nary a blink.

“Ramblin’” had Frisell and Leisz, who have become a remarkably intuitive team via recent collaborations, pushing each other in intricately interweaving lines over the rumbling thunder propelled by Rogers and Harland — this is where the Allman Brothers meet Ornette, and it’s a pretty lively place. “In My Room” started and finished with Frisell’s deceptively casual impressionism, framing the group’s collective explorations of tune and textures, led by Lloyd’s signature love of the melody and insatiable curiosity for where he can take it. Or where it can take him. (As it has been through his storied, varied career, in which he has always ignored imposed lines between musical styles — a rare mix of high-minded musicality with a naturally populist streak, fully flowering in the current Marvels projects.)

Through it all on Friday, gentility sparkled with delight, power gained strength from peace — and vice versa. Lloyd, 79, has been part of and witness to a lot of great music in his nearly 60-year career. But often this night he stood aside, watching the other players with a look of unbridled joy.

That joy went off the scale when he brought Williams out, flipping the formula of a concert at the same locale last year in which Lloyd joined Williams and her band (which, that night, also included Frisell and Leisz) for the latter part of her concert. Williams told the crowd that they had bonded over their southern roots (he raised in Memphis, she in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas), but the bond is deeper than that in the music, bringing out much in each other. The gospel “Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine” launched the pairing this night on a fine, fiery note.

But if the concluding three songs of the night gave us the power of anger and redemption, the song right before them made that possible — with the power of love. With a gorgeously wrenching version of “A Place in My Heart,” Williams’ nakedly, unashamedly sentimental waltz, she, Lloyd and the band fully revealed their hearts, and fully reached the hearts of the moved fans. There were tears.

And there’s your answer. There’s your connection. There’s your holy.