Despite his deep harmonic language and highly evolved personal sound, enigmatic guitarist Bill Frisell has often been criticized for musical choices that appear to ignore his jazz roots. But he treats jazz simply as one part of a larger musical continuum where Thelonious Monk and Hank Williams can harmoniously coexist. Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian presents him at his jazziest, yet it's still unequivocally a Bill Frisell record, with the broad scope and quirky mannerisms that have defined his career from the very beginning.
Compare Ron Carter and Miles Davis' "Eighty-One from E.S.P. (Legacy Recordings, 1965) with the version that opens this record. With one guitar, Frisell distills the essential harmonies of a quintet and delivers them without the feeling that anything has been lost. His mastery of elongated notes and seemingly infinite decays creates a rich sound that's appealing, ethereal and often ambiguous.
Frisell has been playing with Motian in various contexts for a quarter of a century, and he worked with Carter on two fine albums by drummer Joey Baron, including Down Home (Intuition, 1997). So, while this is a first-time union, the shared history of the trio's members creates an inherent chemistry which was missing on on Frisell's 2001 Nonesuch collaboration with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Elvin Jones. Here Frisell is able to take a song like the traditional "Pretty Polly and let it shift between free time and the verge of swing, all the while blending a skewed folksiness with more delineated behind-the-beat blues phrasing.
It's a shame that Carter isn't the first-call bassist he used to be, because here he demonstrates an unassailable groove, muscular sound and big ears on Frisell's "Monroe, first heard on Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999). But instead of Jim Keltner's firm backbeat, Motian and Carter give it a gently lilting swing.
Frisell's innate sense of humour has always made him an astute interpreter of Monk. Here two blues piecesthe lesser-known "Raise Four and classic "Misterioso are given definitive contemporary treatments. In both cases swing is the thing, but Motianas off-kilter a drummer as Frisell is a guitaristcreates the subtlest unsettled feeling, despite Carter's firm anchor.
This is also Frisell's most sonically unaffected disc. Motian's "Introduction, from It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago (ECM, 1985), is more direct, with just the subtlest hint of looping replacing the dense guitar synth of the original. Proof that sometimes all you need is the simplest instrumentation to create a wellspring of ideas on songs ranging from the country of "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry to the mainstream "On the Street Where You Live.
Regardless of where he finds his music, Frisell can always be counted on for an odd-angled approach that keeps his musical partners and listeners on their toes. Half the fun is not knowing what's coming next, and Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian may well be the most unpredictable mainstream record you'll ever hear.
Visit Bill Frisell and Ron Carter on the web.
Personnel: Bill Frisell: guitar; Ron Carter: bass; Paul Motian: drums.