How best to reinvigorate vintage pop music featuring melodies that are as familiar as bedtime stories to several generations of listeners?
It’s an imperfect art, but eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell took an exemplary approach to just such a mission with last year’s All We Are Saying…, a collection of instrumental versions of familiar John Lennon gems, including Beatles songs as well as solo material.
Frisell gave new life to that material even more dramatically at the intimate Club Soda, for one of the first evening concerts during the sprawling, 10-day Montreal Jazz Festival. There, the conceptual-minded six-stringer was joined by his likeminded collaborators from the album — Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Tony Scherr on a Hofner Beatle bass, and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
Opening with “Across the Universe,” also the album’s first track, Frisell unleashed a series of air-hanging, ethereal notes leading the band into the gorgeous melody, with Wollesen using brushes for light rhythmic propulsion.
With the two guitarists ‘ lines often criss-crossing, the piece evolved into something of a fusion jam, and the rhythms stretched and slipped before the band shifted into avant-jazz sounds, finally dissipating.
“Beautiful Boy,” similarly, sprung to life gradually, with a free section leading into Wollesen’s laidback groove and the sing-song theme, the group finally hovering on a cloud of interlocked strings and percussion. Frisell effectively used dissonance at the start of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” tricking his way into the melody and effectively amping its emotional qualities — again, no easy feat but a task handily managed by the quartet.
Two of the set’s highlights came about midway through the 90-minute show. Scherr hinted at the distinctive slipping-upward bass line of “Come Together” before decidedly laying it down, and Frisell charged in with a fat, wooly tone for the melody; Leisz’s revved-up pedal steel solo was tinted with psychedelic touches. Then came “Julia,” perhaps the prettiest and most poignant of Lennon’s melodies, voiced by the guitarist after a long, slow drift into the piece.
Throughout a show capped with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a hushed, slow “Imagine,” Frisell and his simpatico bandmates drew from a variety of genres — rock, folk, blues, Americana, jazz, and even some West African grooves and textures (“In My Life”) — for graceful, potent new readings of Lennon’s music. They made it all look so easy.