Bill Frisell (guitar)
Brian Blade (drums)
Larry Grenadier (standup bass)
I’m a guy who makes things up as I go along so nothing is ever going to be finished There are so many different ways to approach a piece of music in my mind That’s why you always have to practice. If you’re not practicing, you’re not going to be there when the revelation comes. - Sonny Rollins
Back to ‘The Bridge’ at the Herbst Theater was an all-star ensemble recreating Sonny Rollins historic 1962 album. This year’s SF Jazz Spring Season was a tribute to the master himself, and included a number of other shows devoted to a wide range of Rollins material.
The Bridge is a landmark recording and among the most important jazz albums of all time. Just prior to releasing The Bridge, at the height of his career and popularity, Rollins took a 3-year sabbatical from playing live gigs and studio recordings. In that time he practiced and explored music throughout the streets of New York including under the Williamsburg Bridge. This became the reference to the albums title.
According to the SFJazz Program guide, this is "the finest example of collaborative improvisation in jazz history." What sets this album apart from jazz albums in the past is the idea that we now know of as jamming on a theme. Instead of long intense wandering solos with wicked variation, Rollins took simple melodies and repeated them over and over again with variations. Compositionally, this album also introduces the idea of mixing composition with improvisation. The improvised sections lead into short composed parts that push the song to the next section or the next solo. These compositional sections are also improvised or demented. These ideas are so pervasive in jam bands today, and in bands of the past like Phish, Frank Zappa, and the Grateful Dead.
I’ve owned The Bridge for years now and was very familiar with the album, so when I first heard about this concert I was thrilled. The cherry on top was of course having Bill Frisell sit in as the guitarist, a perfect choice. Jim Hall’s original guitar playing is a large part of The Bridge and prominent from the beginning. The guitar acts as the bridge between the rhythm section and Rollin’s lead, with the ability to change the music from a balance 2 versus 2 to an unbalanced 3 versus 1. I think is interesting to think about this album being released in 1962, somewhere between Chuck Berry and The Beatles. You can start to see where jazz begins to meet rock and roll. Many of the late 60’s bands were jazz fans, and Sonny Rollins had just rewritten jazz. They took this back to their own music and it really changed everything.
The morning of the show, I decided I needed to become even closer to The Bridge. I listened to the album three more times, deconstructing exactly where solos were and the time signature of songs, etc. The liner notes included with the disc were invaluable help explaining the compositional make up of songs and what makes some aspects unique. I never fully understood how important this album really is until that morning. Teaching people how to improvise is such an abstract concept to think about and it’s hard to explain.
I attendee the matinee was lucky enough to score 5th row seats. There were two performances of The Bridge, a general admission matinee show, and a higher priced reserved seating evening show. The matinee also allowed children and was to feature a question and answer period following the show.
The Herbst Theater is a beautiful old chamber music hall. The plush red carpets, red seats, and soft blue and green pastel wall murals are very inviting. There are large brick facades that look very colonial. The ceiling has wonderful chandeliers, and exquisite gold trim detailing along the ceiling. The stage has layers of huge elegant curtains with tassels. It is truly a wonderful place to see a show in San Francisco.
The line-up for Back To The Bridge featured Joshua Redman on tenor saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar, Brian Blade on drums, and Larry Grenadier on bass. The band came out and started out the afternoon with a song that did not make The Bridge. It started out nice and slow with first just drums, then adding the bass, then the guitar, and finally the saxophone. Redman took a really nice solo with the rest of the band backing him up. He came out of the gate with something to say. This was the first time I ever heard Redman and was immediately impressed. His voice is so smooth and silky. This led into a Frisell solo with Redman taking a break on the sideline. Frisell looked to be having fun but also a little nervous. He didn’t appear to have much to say, and it felt more like a sound check for him. The song clocked in around 7 minutes. After the song Redman, introduced the song and explained it was part of the session materials for The Bridge but it did not make the final cut.
The second song of the evening was the beginning of The Bridge. The opening track, "Without A Song", hits the tracks running with the full band starting together running through a piece of composed music. From the beginning, the seamless blend of composition and improvisation can be heard on this track. Part of the actual composition is short space left for improvised lines from the musicians. That is such a brilliant simple idea, and one to ponder for a long time! It allows another musicians to play the cover song while at the same time allowing them to improvise in their own way. At the same time, it also allows one musician to re-explore a musical space again and again in different ways.
This song moves through many sections while keeping a constant grooving beat. During the opening compositional section, Redman and Frisell added their unique lines back and forth anchored by a more sturdy drums and bass. Redman took a rather lengthy solo that was very nice. Its sounded like Redman, not Rollins. This led into a bass solo backed by Blade on drums and Frisell. Redman eventually hoped back in and a full band improvisation began exploring the theme of the song.
The theme jam then led back into the compositional section that opened the song. This time, the lines traded by Redman and Frisell were far more fierce and demented, influenced by the middle of the song. This ended right into a short Frisell solo that seemed a little out of place. It was only for a few measures though, before Redman bounced back in and started interacting with what he was playing. Wow! Frisell was simply laying the groundwork for their improvisation over a controlled number of measures, not actually taking a solo. It was another one of those moments where I realized the sure genius of Rollins. They took this theme into a grand ending with Redman eventually blaring over top of Frisell. This song clocked in around 10 minutes while the original is 7:23.
"Where Are You" was up next, a light and airy song. This is a stark contrast to the opening track because it is mainly an unstructured improvised work. While the album begins with a Rollins solo, this version started out with Frisell taking a solo. It was nice to see them changing things up a bit. His solo was delicate and fragile, brimming with familiar chords mixed with short spurts of rhythm. It was typical Frisell, not Jim Hall. His solo lasted over 2 minutes with only light drums being laid down by Blade. The full band then entered onto his solo and the music shifted to a Redman solo with Frisell backing him up as well. I think what actually happens here compositionally is that Redman continues the same theme of the solo that Frisell was taking and it to appear as a seamless blend. There is no bridge or composition widget bridging these 2 solos.
Redman’s solo was followed by another Frisell solo with Redman on the sidelines. To finish up, the song entered in a short little full band jam that exploded. Redman finished the song by himself through on measure playing a beautiful spiraling line Redman that just seemed to linger as the song ended. This song clocked in around 8 minutes while the original is 5:05.
Redman introduced the next track by saying it sounded quirky to him. Quirky is good in my book. It’s hard to imagine "John S." was written 40 years ago because it stills sounds so fresh. It could be easily mistaken for something out of the Garage A Tois, Charlie Hunter, or Galactic songbook. At the same time, you can see the structural influence in this song that has even set the foundation for much of the way King Crimson improvises. You really need to hear it to fully understand it. This is my favorite song on the album and the live version did not disappoint.
"John S."started out with a compositional section where all four-band members were locked together as a unit. It’s a somewhat lengthy introduction that is repeated again at the end of the song, acting as bookends for the madness in-between. According to the liner notes, this song consists of choruses that are 34-bars long. They go on to say "Sonny’s marvelously built solo, growing out of a simple repeated declamation, is one of the finest examples of long line improvisation in which ensemble interaction is the key to success, both as a musical excitement and musical form." Another interesting thought to ponder.
The main section of the song features a rolling drum beat that is upbeat and military in sound. Redman led the band through a fast paced jam to open the song. This was extremely tight and demonstrated their intense listening abilities even though the band was an all-star ensemble. This led into a Frisell solo, again without Redman, and only the drums and base.
Brian Blade was going off on drums and at one point knocked over his cymbal! Redman went over and took a few minutes to fix it. This got a nice cheer from the crowd, as the band simply did not miss a beat. Frisell then dropped out and left just the drums and bass. Blade really began to demonstrate his ability here as he interacted with the bass solo, rather then simply supporting it. The bass then dropped out leaving just Blade, who began using every part of the drum like the rim and the sides, and using both ends of the sticks. Blade is young and talented musician. It was inspiring to watch him throughout the whole show always interacting with the other musicians rather then simply keeping the beat.
Blade’s solo led back into the ending of the song, a composed jam where they constantly pass the theme around between the 4 of them. First Frisell played a measure, then just the drums, then Grenadier played a measure, then just the drums, then Redman played a measure, then just the drums, then the full band played a measure together which was rather chaotic and at full tilt. The end of the measure jumps right back into the composed section that started the song, a quirky cut between sections that leaves you gasping for air. The feeling I had while this was going on was so close to something Phish or The Beatles do that it was an intense feeling. A flood of song memories that use that same technique came back to me. This is another song that shows a powerful mix of improvisation with composition. This song clocked in around 10 minutes while the original is 7:36.
After the song, Redman commented, "Funny tune, you weren’t clapping along." Next, they jumped out of order to play track number 5, skipping over the title track. "God Bless The Child" is an instrumental version of a classic Billie Holiday song. This version was beautiful. This song presented an interesting twist of covering a covering song. While playing this song, the musicians must be moved and inspired by both versions, something I never thought about until sitting there that afternoon.
The song started with Larry Grenadier’s bass solo. He was played a stand up bass the entire show. Light brushes on the drums slowly joined him. Redman took the first solo followed by Frisell. Towards the end of Frisell’s solo, Redman led the band through a composed section with wonderful harmonies that I believe is the chorus of the song. I have to admit I’ve never heard the original version. This song clocked in around 8 minutes while the original is 7:24.
Not surprisingly, the show closed with "The Bridge". This meant they were not playing track 6, "You Do Something For Me", which is a rather mellow song and one that I didn’t miss. Closing with the title track was perfect, and made me wonder why it doesn’t close the original album. Redman introduced by the number by saying it was "a crazy song and they decided to take the liberty and make it crazier." That’s an introduction that makes me smile.
The song began all 4-band members playing chaotic space. They played with each other and then against again each other, in parallel and then in-between, tugging and pulling, with tension and release. Once again, this little simple section sounded so pervasive to almost everything we here in jam music today.
Two composed lines of spiraling downward notes mark this song. According to the liner notes this song in constructed of "one alternate 6/8 passages with 4/4s; the other is straight 4/4." Since I listened to album all morning I found myself humming and jamming on this song in my head the entire way down to the Herbst Theater. I started to really think about what that structure means. It’s a fun little structure to jam on and the constant inversion seems to aid in having fun while improvising. The ability to play half notes before the beat and then invert it after the beat adds a constant rhythmic texture that adds dimension to the main beat. It reminds me very much of Jay Lane and Les Claypool’s interaction in Frog Brigade.
"The Bridge" is fast and upbeat. At the same time, there is a measure that keeps coming back where the band breaks into half speed. At first, these breaks are close to the theme and very controlled in distant. Eventually, they become more demented and take on their own flavor like a short reggae interlude. Imagine hearing reggae beat on a jazz album from 1962. This technique is something Phish, moe., and SCI do frequently in their own songs. The half speed breaks usually then leads into jams that slowly built back to full speed. Although "The Bridge" does not build up in the same fashion, the constant movement between speeds, and the blurring of the lines of which musician is playing at which speed is the same basic philosophy.
Blade was the foundation of the songs ability to move back and fourth between full and half speed. Redman’s first solo was breathtaking as he really let it all out. The beginning of his solo ran right over the rhythm structure moving back and fourth between speeds. At first he would slow down to match it but soon the music was pouring out of him and he just briefly touched them and eventually just ignoring them. It was so Phishy that it scares me. Like a cat and mouse game, Redman would follow them down the hole, sometime just a step behind while other times a few more steps behind. The finale of this song was magnificent. It clocked in around 8 minutes while the original is 5:35.
During the song I noticed he would drop out for a few notes and then come back, making good use of empty space. They was he interacted with the band here reminded me of the way Zach from Sector 9 plays drums. The music came across as rhythmic and unpredictably bouncy, where the dropped notes and where they are dropped began to say as much as notes being played. This is a phrasing technique is often used by Zach, and I never equated it to a wind instrument rather then drums.
The entire concert was only about an hour, but I feel honored to have been able to witness history. I understand they played a few more songs in the evening concert. I was very impressed with all of the musicians, and will certainly seek out the next Joshua Redman show in the Bay Area. His style is clearly influence by being a 33 year old Berkeley native. It’s an abstract idea but you can feel it in the way he plays.
After the show, we learned a few things about the performance. Although they had all been familiar with the albums for years, they only learned to play the album last week. They had one rehearsal the day before and this show was only the second time they had played the material together. That is a rather impressive testament to the strength of "The Bridge" as an improvisational masterpiece that set the groundwork for all future generations.