One of the major elements that postmodern jazz (which is as vague and ambiguous a term as I can think of) shares with the more traditional varieties of jazz is that the music is still essentially driven by the idea of contrast. In earlier forms it was pre-written melody vs. improvisation, or ensemble playing vs. solos, but in the past few years a lot of the more experimental players have tended to play up the contrast between sounds that are completely free-form and music that has some sort of structure. Surprisingly enough, these often turn out to be the simplest examples of jazz imaginable.
Sometimes when this happens, as it did with guitarist Bill Frisell's Sextet Wednesday night at the Village Vanguard, I can't help but think of the opening of the Old Testament, how all was chaos until the Supreme Being turned on the light. In this case it's melody. What Genesis doesn't tell us is that sometimes the chaos can be attractive too, especially when you have players of the caliber of Mr. Frisell and his merry band. In fact, chaos becomes so appealing that, unlike in the Good Book, Mr. Frisell returns to it periodically. Still, I'm never sure if this move for the sake of contrast is an effort to heighten our appreciation of the more structured melodies or if we are simply to enjoy the free-form sections in themselves.
Mr. Frisell is completing a two-week run at the Vanguard. Last week he played in a trio format with the bassist Tony Scherr and the drummer Kenny Wollesen, and this week he has added a frontline consisting of Ron Miles on cornet, Jenny Scheinmann on violin, and Don Byron on reeds.
Mr. Frisell begins, as I have often heard postmodernists do, with what sounds like a tuneup but soon builds into an amorphous blob of sound. This formless opening intro serves roughly the same purpose that the ad-lib intro does in bebop, which is to create tension and make us wait for the players to fall into a tempo or anything we can hang our ears on.
On Wednesday, Mr. Frisell delivered before we got too restless, though he didn't tip his hat for a while. The first melody he played was a kind of Martian version of the country music standard "You Are My Sunshine." He followed with a blues, Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" (in recent years, one of the Mighty Monk's most familiar works), delivered in an especially mysterious fashion, more tranquil and sedate than bluesy, with Mr. Miles delivering his solo in staccato beeps of unconnected dots. Likewise, Mr. Frisell's solo consisted of short fragments of notes separated by Monkish silences.
Having established his game plan, Mr. Frisell proceeded to play a 70-minute set without interruption or lull, throughout which he continued to drop in interludes of freeform playing between strong melodies ó though those were the only two recognizable standards to be heard.
The third piece began with a Latin-Caribbean polyrhythm on guitar and violin, which, when the melody arrived, sounded like something from an Italian spy movie. Then Mr. Byron's clarinet gave this already minor-key piece something of a klezmer sound, and Ms. Scheinmann's violin solo made the least of the situation in the way it took this low-key melody and made it seem even more minor. Another piece suggested a country blues, and reminded me that quite a few Western bands in the 1930s included trumpet and saxophone in addition to guitar and violin; if there had been lyrics to this tune, they would have been about horses. Yet another tune was somehow more rockish, but with kind of a reggae-ska beat, chugging along with a Monk-ish urgency.
On the whole, I enjoy Mr. Frisell's playing more with this new sextet than the context in which I am accustomed to hearing him, with the long-standing Paul Motian Trio, costarring Joe Lovano. In the smaller group, Mr. Frisell tends to use his electronics kit more often and fill the empty spaces with vast sonic soundscapes, something he seems to have inspired players such as Ben Monder and Nels Cline to do as well. Because more of the sonic stage is otherwise occupied with the sextet, Mr. Frisell wisely sticks to sounds within the realm of notes and melody. With this group more than any other, Mr. Frisell succeeds in devising music that's challenging yet agreeable, that stimulates and expands your horizons while permitting you at least the illusion of remaining in a melodic comfort zone.
Mr. Frisell is also heard on two recent trio albums, both with Paul Motian ó "Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian" (Nonesuch), released a few months ago, and the new "Time and Time Again," with Mr. Lovano. In both cases the guitarist plays a mixture of originals, Monk tunes, and a few show tunes.
It's a time-honored practice for a jazz player to adopt show music to his needs, but what Karen Akers is doing at the Oak Room, in a sense, upends the process. In her new show, the somewhat deceptively titled "Simply Styne," the cabaret headliner has assembled 24 of the most and least familiar works of Broadway legend Jule Styne. It's a foregone conclusion that Ms. Akers, as both a singing and dramatic actress, would be primarily interested in the latter part of Styne's career, when he wrote intricate songs with complex narratives for shows with such librettists as Stephen Sondheim, Bob Merrill, and Betty Comden & Adolph Green. But what's especially fascinating is the way she takes Mr. Styne's earlier works with Sammy Cahn, which were primarily written for big bands and pop singers, and integrates them into the suggestion of a story line.
For instance, Ms. Akers has her pianist, Don Rebic, mutter lame excuses ("that wasn't lipstick on my shirt ... that was cherry pie") while she ingeniously subverts "I've Heard That Song Before" into a tale of infidelity. She's also excellent on such straight-up ballads as "Long Before I Knew You" and the oftoverlooked "Winter Was Warm" (written for Mr. Magoo). The show is straight singing, with no bio-patter and, thankfully, no apologies for not being able to sing Styne's complete catalog, though it never seems excessive. Granted, Ms. Akers is much better at finding ironic humor in songs in which there previously was none than she is at outand-out K.T. Sullivan-style comedy routines. But on the whole, "Simply Styne" is considerable for the many moments when Ms. Akers rises to her full height.