This evening and tomorrow, Sunday, September 1, the multi-instrumentalist and composer Fred Frith will play two sets each, to close out a week-long residency at The Stone, the small music space in Manhattan's Lower East Side founded by another multi-instrumentalist and composer, and frequent collaborator of Frith's, John Zorn. While Frith was a near-constant presence in New York's alternative or underground or what-you-will multi-genre music scene in the 1980s, when he made the city his home base (the 1990 documentary on Frith, Step Across The Border, depicts his existence in this period as both exhaustingly and exhilaratingly peripatetic), he is now largely settled in Oakland; he holds a position on the faculty at Mills College. This residency did not necessarily constitute a "rare" New York appearance for Frith—indeed, he will be doing something very special at Brooklyn's Roulette in less than three weeks, and returning to New York to play with Ikue Mori at The Stone in December—but it was a rare opportunity to hear him play in a multitude of contexts within a very short time.
I learned about Frith, as I learned about a lot of music, via Creem magazine in the mid-'70s, specifically in a column by Frith's brother, the critic and sociologist Simon. "The greatest guitar player in the world is my brother Fred," were the first words of this column, and even as a teenager with little actual sense of how writing was done I understood how for any scribe worth his salt such a lede must have seemed irresistable, whether the assertion would hold up in court or not. (The lede was also a rare instance of wry humor in what was the sometimes sober-to-the-point-of-stiff mode of Frith's writing.) I was intrigued, but it still took me rather a while to actually find Frith's work to actually listen to. I got to play a smidge of the debut album of Frith's first group, the British pioneers Henry Cow, while failing a tryout for my college radio station; but it wasn't until about a year after that I got myself to a Jersey Sam Goody with a good import section and scored both Frith's seminal 1974 Guitar Solos and Hopes and Fears, the debut record by the austere, rigorous post-Cow trio (augmented by a number of Cow alum) Art Bears. (It would be many years before I learned that the word "Bears" in that name functioned as a verb.) The minimal liner notes on Guitar Solos began "All pieces improvised; music heard as played" and ended "the middle part of 'No Birds' was played on two guitars simultaneously." Well. I could just not imagine. I could not imagined playing two guitars simultaneously, nor could I imagine that the sounds coming out of the speakers being played in real time. The open/barre syncopation of the alternating chords of opening tune "Hello Music" in a bar of four were simple (albeit skewed-sounding) enough, but the cluster of single notes that followed, cascading giddily in maybe a second's time, were something else entirely. As much breathtaking playing as followed on the record—and it still is, almost forty years after its recording, one of the most thrilling documents of an admitedly more abstract than average mode of guitar mastery—the music largely eschews vitruosity for its own sake while still functioning as an extremely potent "show-em-what-you-got" statement. And while Frith's improvisations were largely in something close to a rock idiom, I had still never heard music quite like this before. It was, I understand now, something of a clarifying experience for me. The subsequent 35 years of my life have been richer for having Frith's music in it.
The first Stone set I saw was Wednesday evening, a trio setting with Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. Hoopes and Glenn are members of Jack O' The Clock, a first-rate Oakland-based art-rock combo Frith has championed (its most recent album, All My Friends, is an especially accomplished and moving song collection). For this Frith fan, the notion of the guitarist in a trio brings to mind Massacre, the blistering post-punk combo for which Frith enlisted bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher. Massacre's initial assault was brief but frantic, a mix of blindingly inspired playing and punk energy and volume that could wring you out and hang you up to dry even when the band could only squeeze in a 30-minute CBGB set. I saw Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea meet Bill Laswell for the first time at Maxwell's in 1984 (Laswell was contemplating producing one of their records) and the manic bass player went on at length about Laswell's playing on "Legs," the opening cut of Massacre's sole album from that period, Killing Time, the gist of his riff being "How'd you DO that?" Massacre subsequently reformed years later with the great Charles Hayward taking Maher's drum chair and remained sufficiently heavy to open for Metallica in Europe, although the band's approach currently eschews the punky spurt in favor of the loud at-length extrapolation (the original LP of Killing Time contained thirteen tracks, while the reconstituted band's 2001 Meltdown and 2007 Lonely Heart have six and five, respectively).
In any event: This wasn't Massacre. Jordan Glenn played a staid, small jazz drummer's kit and Jason Hoopes played an acoustic bass, while Frith played his stalwart Gibson ES-355, with the extra pickup clamped over the nut, an innovation he's been rocking since the early '70s. It was not a jazz set, not quite; while Frith has a supreme command of all sorts of chording, you won't ever hear him strike a Tal Farlow sonority, let alone one out of Wes Montgomery. By the same token he rarely extends into the far-side pointilism of Derek Bailey. The instrumentation here is of course the same as that of Bailey's legendary Joseph Holbrooke trio with Gavin Bryars and Tony Oxley, so one wouldn't have been surprised to hear Glenn, Hoopes, and Frith go down that route. Again, not quite. Glenn's style split the difference between Tony Oxley's math and Paul Motian's ethereal swing, while Hoopes juggled time in the tradition of Scott La Faro. Which allowed Frith to move forward with a relaxed, confident demonstration of how physical and rhythmic a guitarist he really is at heart. That's the thing about his playing that I think doesn't get enough appreciation; even at its most conceptually out-on-a-limb, it pushes the listener. Listen to the thrum of the first chord of Henry Cow's "Bittern Storm Over Ulm," the specific attack on the notes and the way they hang as the bass starts its modified walking figure: it's a dance step. With Hoopes and Glenn, Frith's encyclopedic musicality found a sinuous rhythmic platform that he could go over, under, sideways, and down with.
The next evening's duet with Zorn was of the sort that was likely to inspire reflection that former musical hellions have "mellowed." (An assessment that the artists themselves might not take too much issue with; they named their most recent recorded collaboration Late Works.) Zorn brought only his alto sax with him (prior duets have not infrequently also included mouth pieces and duck calls, and I do actually wonder what Zorn makes of Duck Dynasty, if anything at all), while Frith was apt to go at his Gibson with all manner of shoe brushes, sticks, bows, metal chains, and more. This sort of thing, I find, tends to be one of the sticking points that people of more straight-arrow sensibilities tend to hav with respect to some approaches to "free" music, that is, why is it not the height of wank to run a shoe brush on the strings of an electric guitar over the pickups? The question actually has sprung to my own mind once or twice and unfortunately (or maybe it actually IS a good thing, come to think of it) the answer varies from musician to musician. In the case of Frith, I think the aspect of giving up a certain amount of control in introducing these physical variables to the process has a particularly vital appeal because he is a virtuoso. (And of course we remember that one of the pioneers of "prepared piano" was John Cage, a big proponent of extreme uses of the element of chance in music.) Understand that this is a musician who's got a staggering command of his primary instrument, the guitar. He can completely detune his guitar during a section of a guitar solo, play an entirely coherent set of runs on it in that state, and then put the guitar back in tune, perfectly, all without interrupting the improvisation he is laying out. He's played with the devices he uses to the extent he has some idea of what effect they'll have on the sound, but he can't know exactly what it'll be at a given moment. While Frith used a good number of thingamajigs during the set, the emphasis was on the flagrantly tonal, and the interplay between Zorn and Frith was for all intents and purposes telepathic. Not infrequently did they respectively skitter their way to a harmonized high note that they held in mutual delight for seconds. While the Zorn/Frith duo collaboration, first chronicled for recorded media on The Art of Memory in 1994, began with the players working in a tradition whose main brief was the aesthetically galvanic confrontation of of tradition (the set was dedicated to Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, free improvisers of the generation directly preceeding theirs), their current mode of discourse is admitedly more relaxed. But still. As Zorn himself has observed, when you're steeped in a new music environment, the stuff that starts to sound "accessible" to you becomes extremely, well, relative. The music Zorn and Frith made in this set was more inclined to comprehensibility than to confrontation, and their interplay was such that they seemed to be spontaneously composing rather than aggresively improvising. What's most fun in hearing them is the way their respective tones complement. Although no longer so inclined to Looney Tunes splatter, Zorn remains acerbic; it's a function of his personality, and also to a certain extent, his instrument. Few altoists aspire to the burnished warmth one associates with Lester Young, and fewer still achieve it. (Art Pepper, sometimes, maybe?). Zorn's tone is conversational, discursive, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes riotous. Frith's does have a burnish to it—the ES-355 is a relatively thin hollow body, but it has a nice wide soundboard; got woody resonant sustain for miles if you want it—a heartiness that can make his most eccentric chordings play like bouyant Arbuckle slapstick.
The solo set that followed on Thursday evening I had not originally intended to stay for, but I'm awfully glad I did. It was the most remarkable fifty minutes or so of solo instrumentation I'd seen, well, to be honest, in less than a year. I'm thinking of the recital Keith Rowe gave at The Stone on September 11 of last year, as it happens. Both of the concerts had, as it happened, strong narrative implications. Rowe, whose music has evolved into such a highly abstract realm that a blindfolded listener might not ever guess that something resembling a guitar is part of his instrumental array (he plays with the instrument flat on a table, and his guitar actually has no soundboard to speak of), very deliberately evoked the events of the date on which he was playing, albeit in a personal, indirect way. On Thursday evening, the talk on the streets among quite a few people was an impending act of war on the part of the United States against the government of Syria. The climax of Frith's improvisation, which in large part until that point had him creating minor-key settings via delay pedal and playing lyrical, English-folk derived filigrees over them, was the evocation of a bombed-out warscape, not rendered in terms of standard high-volume distortion as such (and it was noteworthy that, throughout all the music played during the five sets I saw, the improv cliché of "now we're gonna play really soft! and now we're gonna build it until we get really LOUD! and then we're gonna get soft again!" was consistently avoided), but unmistakably and angrily nevertheless.
Last night, prompted by my friend Bruce Lee Gallanter, the co-proprietor of the great music shop Downtown Music Gallery, I went to The Stone again. He had mentioned the night before that Frith was going to play on a few homemade instruments that he hadn't touched in decades, and that it would be hectic. I didn't check the calender so I didn't know that the handmades would be brought out for the late set, and that the 8 p.m. set would be Frith playing piano with a percussionist and electronics player. Well. I was there, so. On percussion—a large array of mostly small instruments—Nava Dunkelman; on electronics, including a small mixing board and various pedals, Jeanie-Aprile Tang. Both women are young, both wore black dresses; they wouldn't have looked out of place on an episode of Girls, were Girls interested much in the experimental art world. (Interested parties can connect Laurie Simmons to Fred Frith in a "six degrees" game by way of Christian Marclay, if they wish, however.) Frith introduced them and thanked them for allowing him to supplant their usual pianist, Tara Skreekrishnan, with whom the two women form the trio Dapplegray, which came out of Mills College.
Frith is a fine pianist and a good chunk of his Henry Cow stuff plays as piano-based, composition-wise (see also his work with Robert Wyatt on the classic Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard), but the keyboard's not his primary instrument. This performance deliberately put him in a subordinate position. One of Frith's defining characteristics as a person seems to be a desirous-to-be-of-service humility. Although praised to the heavens for his guitar work, and rightly so, for his positions in the John-Zorn-led avant-garde supergroup Naked City and the Richard Thompson/Henry Kaiser-fronted French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson, Frith took the bass player position. For this set he took the bench before a mildly-prepared Yamaha piano and split the difference between Cage and Debussy while letting Dunkelman and Tang set off a variety of sometimes surprisingly delicate aural fireworks. For one improvisation he made a mantra from a slight variation on his piano part for Art Bears' "Of Two Minds," itself a thematically apt homage to the block chords on The Who's "Baba O'Reilly." (Pete Townshend is, interestingly enough, one of the few rock guitarists whose direct influence you can hear on Frith; another is The Shadow's Hank Marvin.)
The final set I heard was last night's 10 p.m., for which Frith indeed broke out the handmades. He constructed them, Bruce told me, because he didn't want to ruin his own guitars; he wanted instruments he could hit hard without worry. The handmades aren't pretty, but they're not caveman-crude either. They are notable for their limitations. By radically restricting the player's options, they force him or her to resort to desperate measures. Like hitting.
Of course, as with his more sophisticated instruments, the effects play a crucial role. There has not been an enormous paradigm shift in Frith's electric playing since Guitar Solos; it really is as much about the instrument's interplay with electronics as it is with the player's interplay with the instruments. And here too there's a certain humility, but also confidence, at work. Frith doesn't have all of his effects yoked together in a special box he can plug into an electrical outlet, nor does he have a sprawling all-in-one digital box specially designed for him or anything like that. His effects are, in a manner of speaking, a la carte; small boxes, powered by batteries, chained together via patchchords. And not all that many of them, either. For the homemades set, he performed in duo format, under the name Normal, with Sudhu Tewari, an electro-acoustic musician who also studied at Mills College. Tewari played what was termed"heavily assisted readymades." The the naked eye, these consisted of what looked like a solid-state amplifier/receiver with the faceplate removed, and dozens of screws and metal clips inserted into the top grate. I understand how this might sound intimidating, but the set was in fact rollicking. The first thing the audience heard was a spoken word sample of an aperçu about "control" and much of the dynamic of the subsequent fifty minutes of improvisation saw Frith simulating an effort to set a sonic agenda and Tewari exuberantly sawing through it.
As music spaces go, the not-for-profit The Stone is what some might call ascetic. It doesn't serve refreshments of any kind, never mind booze. The place holds maybe seventy people comfortably, depending on how you define "comfortably," and (and this is the really exciting part) during the musical portions of the evening the management shuts off the air conditioning, more often than not. This information is likely to make readers who aren't conversant with this kind of music suspect the worst: that experimental arts really are po-faced, anti-pleasure, dedicated to humorless suffering. I dunno. There were dozens of generous laugh shared between the musicians throughout the evenings. I was also intrigued to see a Portuguese family—from what I could gleaned, a man, his wife, their six-or-so-year-old daughter, and one of the adults' mom—attend each and every show that I was at, and have a blast. Takes all kinds to make, and better, a world, I guess.