The sepia-toned songs of Woody Guthrie were transformed into colorful showers of notes on Friday at White Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center of Greater City.
Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet rearranged the music of Guthrie and several of the folk songwriters he inspired into a vivid melange of challenging chamber music.
While the premise of Friday’s concert seemed convoluted — an ensemble led by a jazz guitarist plays instrumental versions of American folk songs at an event presented by a classical music organization — the 95-minute performance was entirely brilliant.
After all, Frisell isn’t an ordinary guitarist, and the Harriman-Jewell Series is an elite presenter of the performing arts.
Like other exploratory guitarists such as Pat Metheny and John Scofield, Frisell has been expanding the vocabulary of jazz for decades.
Flanked by cellist Hank Roberts, violist Eyvind Kang and violinist Jenny Scheinman on his right and drummer Rudy Royston to his left, Frisell opened the concert with a jarring examination of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” With the five musicians playing in disparate directions, Frisell may have been making a statement about the current political and social climate.
A searing reworking of “Masters of War” also was imbued with an undercurrent of rage. The Bob Dylan composition featured a tortured rumination by Frisell, one of his only extended solos of the evening.
Bridging the divide between a piece for a formal concert hall and a raucous song at an outdoor hootenanny in the red dirt of Oklahoma, the quintet’s rendition of “Do Re Mi” was an exhibition of rustic sophistication.
The musicians played a game of musical hot potato with melodies throughout the evening. Frisell frequently shifted allegiances with members of the band, conspiring with Kang one moment then switching into a complex syncopation with Royston.
The drummer was the most valuable component of the quintet. Without Royston’s ability to gently corral his cohorts when they threatened to range too far afield, the concert might have been excessively chaotic.
Royston’s temperance didn’t prevent murmurs of discontent from some members of the near-capacity audience of about 500. Although the musicians performed with sheet music, they didn’t always sound as if they were on the same page. The deliberate cacophony was too much for some listeners, and several dozen left early.
They missed a gorgeous version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and a quizzical interpretation of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”
Even without the contributions of a vocalist, the sensitive readings of the familiar selections were extraordinarily eloquent.
This Land Is Your Land, Do Re Mi, Pastures of Plenty, Red River Valley, Tom Joad, This Land Is Your Land (reprise), unknown, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, If I Had a Hammer, Philadelphia Lawyer, A Change Is Gonna Come, For What It’s Worth, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Masters of War, This Land Is Your Land (third version)