Good music is where you find it. Sometimes it's clear as day because the original is so great that there's simply no doubt; other times it can be obscured by poor interpretationbut dig deep enough and unmistakable qualities are revealed. Over the past 25 years, guitarist Bill Frisell has built a reputation as a significant composer on albums like '94's This Land and '01's Blues Dream. But he's equally known as an astute interpreter of others' music, as on '93's Have a Little Faithwhere he covered everyone from Copland to Madonnaand in performance, where he's as likely to cover Dylan as Monk.
Frisell's recent anti-solo approachand his penchant for everything from the bluegrass of The Willies to the world music of The Intercontinentalshas garnered him fans who relate to his strange skewed lyricism. However, it has also alienated those who wish he'd return to a more clear-cut jazz-centricity. East/West will appeal to both. Nothing less than the best of what Frisell is all about, these two discsculled from a 2004 stint at Yoshi's in Oakland and a 2003 run at the Village Vanguard in New Yorkare as comprehensive a view of Frisell as any one (admittedly double) release is apt to provide.
Few artists can comfortably combine Gershwin and Mancini with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, but one of Frisell's greatest strengths is that he can get to the crux of a songany song. In a trio setting he can create a rich universe that's as much about implication as the obvious. The Yoshi's take on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" finds Frisell grabbing the defining essentials of the song and gradually evolving them over eight minutes. His control of an array of effectsso well-integrated that they're like an additional appendageallows him to create a full sound. Yet what makes even his most oblique phrasing so appealing and eminently approachable is his sense of space. He may be capable of the formidable displays of technique that go a long way to impressing guitar-o-philes, but he'll never resort to them.
Instead, it's all about feel. The Yoshi's material, with bassist Viktor Krauss a more in-the-pocket player, is more elemental and groove-based. The New York disc, with Tony Scherr's more open-minded sensibility, is definitively jazz-oriented, despite ending with Frisell and Scherr on acoustic guitars for "Crazy" and "Tennessee Flat Top." Both trios, rounded out by drummer Kenny Wollesen, are clearly concerned with respecting the song, be it a cover or one of Frisell's own.
East/West, Frisell's strongest release in years, is almost the perfect albumnot just in jazz, but in music, period. It serves as confident assurance to his existing fans that his career has been driven by choice and the love of a good song. It's also the perfect introduction for a newcomer who wants to know why he's considered one of the most original voices in jazz. Indeed, good music is where you find it.
Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loops; Viktor Krauss: bass (CD1); Tony Scherr:
bass, acoustic guitar (CD2); Kenny Wollesen: drums, percussion.