Big Sur, the mountainous coastal region of California lends itself to various geographical definitionsit isn't easy to pin down definitively. So, it was an inspired idea by the Monterey Jazz Festival to put guitarist Bill Frisell in a cabin in the area and commission music, because with Frisell, musical borders are delightfully amorphous. The suite that Frisell premiered at the 2012 MJF provided the blueprint for this album, which inhabits a strangely alluring space somewhere between modern chamber and country music, sprinkled with a little Frisellian magic dust that blurs the edges.
Frisell has a knack of evoking a sense of place with his often cinematic music, notably with All Hat
(EmArcy, 2008), his country noir soundtrack to Leonard Farlinger's film. Here, his opening chord, spliced with drummer Rudy Royston
's cymbal shot on "The Music of Glen Deven Ranch" conjures the Pacific waves crashing against the cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains, and sets the scene. Frisell's deft sonic brushstrokes embellish the interweaving lines of cellist Hank Roberts
, violinist Jenny Scheinman
and viola player Eyvind Kang
all of whom have long associations with the guitaristcreating music that's intimate and orchestral.
Varying moods capture the rugged splendor of the landscape and the serenity and "abiding peace" that Henry Miller wrote of in "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch" (1957), with its few inhabitants "living at one with the creature world." Frisell pays brooding tribute to his closest neighbors during his cabin stay in "The Animals"; the combination of Robert's deep cello arco drone and a plaintive call and response between violin and viola sounds like a lament for old Indian souls that haunt the land. "Hawks" greater-rhythm intensity is driven by cello's bass ostinato, riffing violin and Royston's lively and imaginative stick work.
Simple melodies form the bare bones of these compositions, with strings plying circular, interlocking motifs while Frisell freely adds impressionistic touches to the group canvas. Lilting melody and waltz-like sway color several of the pieces; "Sing Together like a Family" sees Scheinman and Kang dovetail in harmonic and contrapuntal joy. "Song for Lana Weeks" exudes heartfelt warmth, so too the gently meandering ballad "We all Love Neil Young," which could have come from the inspired pen of old Shakey himself.
The lightly bouncing "A Good Spot" and the shimmering lyricism of "Somewhere" are vignettes, as fleeting as a glimpsed panorama. "Going to California" is somber yet grand, while the steady grooving "Highway 1" is a mosaic of succinct collective phrasing that exercises a hypnotic charm. Frisell's quasi West African figures on "A Beautiful View" recall the sublime The Intercontinentals
(Nonesuch Records, 2003) while "The Big One" jives happily between the Beatles' rock 'n' roll and the surf-rock of the Beach Boys. "Shacked Up" shares pianist Thelonious Monk
's minimalist approach to the blues, with Royston's rhythmic jiggery pokery a good imitation of Monk's unique dancing.
Like a great landscape painting, Frisell's suite-like sonic canvas of Big Sur invites repeated contemplation, where one can get dreamily seduced by the whole picture and happily lost in the fine details and subtly hypnotic contrasting hues.
Personnel: Bill Frisell: guitar; Jenny Scheinman: violin; Eyvind Kang: viola; Hank Roberts: cello; Rudy Royston: drums.