Versatility Rules at the Eclectic Alt-Guitar Summit, Starring Bill Frisell and Many More
By David Rubien, Contributing Writer, June 15, 2018
When a large percentage of jazz guitarists under the age of 50 tell you that their primary influence was Jimi Hendrix, you know something interesting is going on. While the guitar has become as prevalent in jazz as almost any other axe, it is also the instrument best tuned to defying the norms many of us expect from jazz. Among the myriad reasons for this, there’s one central fact. “The guitar is very versatile,” says Joel Harrison, the Brooklyn guitarist who is currently immersed in preparing his ninth annual Alt-Guitar Summit, an annual convocation of all kinds of creative fret specialists that takes place June 21-23. “This really I can’t emphasize enough. It can do almost an infinite number of things in the context we musicians live in. It can be a noise maker, play straight-ahead jazz, any variety of rock or country or bluegrass, and you can put it all together as certain guitarists do.”
He might also have added how well adapted the guitar is to interpreting the music of so many countries and cultures. The strings can be bent, bowed, plucked and popped to the specifications of the most brilliant, or demented, player. Not to mention the guitar can serve as a rhythm or lead instrument, or both simultaneously (Charlie Hunter or Tuck Andress, anyone?).
Harrison could certainly include himself in the category of putting it all together. “I was eclectic before there was eclectic,” he says, and he has 19 radically different albums going back to 1996 to show for it. For the players at this Summit, though, eclecticism is almost a given. Certainly Bill Frisell, Julian Lage, Gilad Hekselman, Rez Abbasi, Brandon Ross, Matt Munisteri and Marvin Sewell each tap into a huge variety of traditions and transmogrify them in unique and beautiful ways.
Point being, the Alt-Guitar Summit is for guitarists who are exploratory, whether peeking from inside a genre or out. The lynchpin of this year’s Summit is clearly Frisell, who drawing equally from Hendrix, Jim Hall and Aaron Copland established his outré bonafides in the 1980s and now at age 67 is an alt-icon. There are not many musical options that Frisell would refuse to consider. At the Summit he’s leading a Bill Frisell Invitational June 21 at Le Poisson Rouge as well as a Workshop With Bill Frisell June 23 at the Jazz Gallery.
For the invitational, Frisell will be interacting with four of the most cutting-edge players on the scene—the rampantly eclectic and quicksilver Julian Lage, the slashing guitarchitect and alt-guitar elder statesman Ross, avant acoustic Americana specialist (and pretty good singer) Munisteri and master of alt-tunings Sewell. The Workshop will offer up Frisell as guitar guru, showing off some of his tricks to the audience while being interviewed by Harrison. Frisell made his Alt-Summit debut last year as a special guest of Pat Metheny, and Harrison acknowledges that those two are about as big-time as this fret fete ever gets. “It’s really been a feature for the unsung heroes,” he insists.
So which other heroes can we expect this year? The Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown June 22 at Nublu 151 offers the thrilling power trio Harriet Tubman (Ross, Melvin Gibbs, J.T. Lewis), the mercurial Adam Rogers and DICE (with Nate Smith, Fima Ephron) and the explosive Dave Fiuczinski & Micro Kif Jamz plus special guests.
Then there’s the centerpiece of the Summit, Across the Generations—First-Time Duos, on June 23 in which eight hyper-talented players will attempt to bridge the age gulf. Abbasi, with his subcontinental sophistication, goes to the mat with the scrappy comer Jeff Miles. Israeli Hekselman’s West African-flecked melodies promise to serve as an intriguing counter to Peter Bernstein’s bop harmonies. Joe Morris’ teeming post-tonal runs could be challenged by Matteo Liberatore’s sonic splashes. And finally, synchronization is to be expected when Harrison’s earth-to-sky pastorals mingle with Anthony Pirog’s striking pastels.
“I can only imagine what the audience feels when watching and listening to so many great players back to back,” Abbasi told ZEALnyc. “Playing for a room full of guitar lovers and players can be both terrifying and joyous.” Added Hekselman: “I look forward to stealing everyone’s ideas.”
For the complete Alt-Guitar Summit schedule click here.
Cover: Bill Frisel; photo: Scott Friedlander.