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Bill Frisell and company impart robust jazz twists to cinematic themes

Guitarist Bill Frisell
Guitarist Bill Frisell Monica Frisell

The frolicsome rendition of the theme from the television Western “Bonanza,” performed by an ensemble led by Bill Frisell at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on Sunday, was indicative of the surprising twists and turns the brilliant guitarist has taken in his unpredictable career.

The lively hillbilly-jazz selection was a highlight of the concert presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series and the museum.

Raised in Colorado, Frisell has been blurring the boundaries between styles including jazz, country and classical music for more than 30 years. Most of the selections at Sunday’s concert are featured on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a new album of familiar compositions associated with film and television.

While many in the audience of about 450 people chuckled during readings of “Bonanza” and the similarly preposterous title song of the 1964 James Bond action flick “Goldfinger,” the members of Frisell’s quintet respectfully applied their formidable talents to all 11 selections in the 100-minute concert.

The unaffected singing of Petra Haden, a frequent Frisell collaborator and the daughter of the late bassist Charlie Haden, shone on a lovely version of “Moon River” that was entirely free of schmaltz. A surrealistic interpretation of “Windmills of Your Mind” also showcased Haden’s pleasingly unadorned technique. The alluring wordless harmonies she added to a spiraling arrangement of “Psycho” made the thought of being butchered by Norman Bates seem like a tantalizing proposition.

When the otherwise reliable Haden missed a high note on Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” violinist Eyvind Kang immediately sprang to the rescue with a pleasing fill. Quick thinking and sympathetic responses characterized his playing throughout the concert.

The persuasive bassist Thomas Morgan seemed to act as a referee as the rest of the band engaged in a fearsome free-for-all during “Farewell to Cheyenne.” The restrained tone of much of the concert often kept drummer Kenny Wollesen under wraps, but he flexed his muscles on a burly version of “As a Judgment.”

While the cinematic theme allowed Frisell to demonstrate only a small portion of his range, the emphasis on songs rather than solos made the concert an accessible delight. A lyric Haden sang from “Bonanza,” — “Hello, friend, come on in, the gate is open wide” — encapsulates the welcoming sentiment of Frisell’s populist form of jazz.


Alfie; To Kill a Mockingbird; You Only Live Twice; Psycho; Once Upon a Time in the West; As a Judgment; Farewell to Cheyenne; Windmills of Your Mind; Goldfinger; Bonanza; Moon River.