Bill Frisell / Djelimady Tounkara, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Bill Frisell is by no means the first Western guitarist to take his instrument on safari - John McLaughlin has jammed in India, and Bob Brozman has covered the South Seas - but this American jazzman's African foray is proving inspirational. It began when he met Boubacar Traore at a dinner party in Seattle, where both he and the Malian maestro were called on to play, aided by percussionist Sidiki Camara on salad bowl and chopsticks (in lieu of the usual calabash). Frisell later met their compatriot Djelimady Tounkara, the leader of Bamako's Super Rail Band, and possessor of the fastest fingers in the world. Frisell and Tounkara jammed in private, and then went public in a historic collaboration at the Barbican: Frisell had meanwhile persuaded Camara to inject a Malian element into his Intercontinentals band.

At the Barbican, all these strands were knitted together, with the Intercontinentals' violinist Jenny Scheinman and slide-guitarist Greg Leisz providing backing for Camara, Tounkara and Frisell. If expect- ations were high - and a packed audience was proof of that - the results surely exceeded them: what we got wasn't fusion, but the most decorously exploratory meeting of minds.

Frisell may be the Clark Kent of the electric guitar, but he admits he can't fathom what Tounkara does in his preternaturally rapid, tail-chasing runs: watching these two men try to shadow each other, as they did at the outset, was like watching two disparate philosophies trying to mesh. For while Frisell's musical world is based on four-square structures, Tounkara's goes in circles: Malian melodies create an effect like the joyful pealing of bells. It was piquant to see Camara literally mediating between them, tickling his calabash with what looked - from a distance - like a standard pair of chopsticks.

The first number went in circles, so we were in Africa. The second opened with jazzy angularity: Frisell soared aloft while Tounkara pumped out plangent chords, with Scheinman's violin stretching out a drone like a roof-beam overhead. For that was how each number felt - an edifice of sound, constructed with care. Some edifices were square, others were rounded, with occasional detours into old territory, as when the whole group relaxed into a smiling Forties swing. At one point, Tounkara and Camara delivered a sulphurous duet based on a jagged harmonic sequence; Frisell and Scheinman replied with an anthemic duet that would have seemed saccharine in isolation, but which in this context was entirely acceptable. Camara closed the first half with a cha-cha that metaphorically brought the sun out; he opened the second with a solo whose invention had us on the edge of our seats.

As did Tounkara, whenever he let rip. As the evening progressed, the centre of gravity swung between America and Africa, but the encore, when it came, was pure campanology: the bells won out.