Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, Sun 11 Jun.
The Adelaide Cabaret Festival can always be relied upon to include an opportunity to see stellar overseas musicians such as jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. With an admirable lack of pretense, an unassuming and low key Frisell begins his performance by introducing his band: Petra Haden on vocals, Thomas Morgan on upright bass, Rudy Royston on drums, but not himself. He does not return to the microphone until the end of the program, when he re-introduces the band, but not himself.
For the most part Frisell plays side on to the audience rather than directly facing us. None of this is the act of a grumpy or disengaged performer. He is constantly smiling, laughing, while watching, encouraging and engaging with his very talented band. He is very clearly enjoying himself, and his pleasure is infectious.
The songs are not introduced, but most require no introduction. In keeping with the theme of his recent album When You Wish Upon A Star, the set list includes a number of well known movie hits such as Moon River, You Only Live Twice, Alfie, and Goldfinger, as well as other pop gems such as What The World Needs Now (Is Love Sweet Love). Petra is in top form with a haunting vocal on Shenandoah. This answers the question of how did such a jazz luminary get to play at a cabaret festival – these songs are accessible and rewarding for any cabaret buff. There are also some extended jazz workouts to satisfy the many musicians and jazz fans in the audience, including some wildly impressive bass and drum solos.
Such is the skill of Bill Frisell that he is able to simultaneously work these songs on two levels. He doesn’t just do jazz versions of pop songs. He manages to remain true to the pop essence of these songs while embellishing them with some very tasty jazz touches. He is a master technician but this doesn’t overshadow his tasteful arrangements.
There is a brief audience participation segment, sometimes a dreaded moment, but on this occasion it allows Petra Haden to inject some of her own personality into proceedings, which adds to the general bonhomie of the evening.
One slightly disconcerting aspect of Bill Frisell onstage is his constant attention to his various foot pedals, sometimes in competition to his attention to the fretboard, At times he almost seems to be dancing frenetically.
The only time it feels inappropriate for this concert to be part of the Cabaret Festival is when it comes abruptly to an end after the scheduled 75 minutes. Music audiences have become accustomed to longer performances and Bill Frisell and his band are called back for two encores. People clearly love what they are hearing, and want the performance to continue for much longer. Let’s hope they return to Adelaide sometime soon.