Whatever the musical context, guitarist Bill Frisell has always been a team player. From the edgy avant-garde of Naked City to the deeply melodic music of the Ginger Baker Trio and several wide-ranging groups of his own, he's proven repeatedly that he has the versatility and perceptiveness to fit into wildly different surroundings. His ECM work has for the most part been of the quiet, melodic sort. Since he last recorded under his own name for the label in 1987, he's forged onward with a more country/blues orientation on his own recordings. Some critics have slapped the term "Americana" on this new material, but Frisell dismisses the label: "People say this has come into my playing in recent years. I think it's been there all along." Perhaps so. Regardless, this set documents a fertile period during the '80s when Frisell was finding his own voice.
In his solo recordings, Frisell prizes space and texture. The solo guitar piece "Introduction" (from the Paul Motian band recording Psalm ) has as much silence as sound. "In Line" (from Frisell's record of the same name) explores extremes of timbre and pitch overlaid on a solid, pulsing acoustic foundation. Then there's his work with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Paul Motian. In trio or quintet settings, these players have a very rare kind of cohesion. Surely Lovano has developed his sound substantially since the '80sthis material emphasizes his sure grasp of melody, but it lacks the deftness of tone and angularity of phrasing which he acquired in the '90s. But in some sense, the '80s were golden years for these players. They deliver some of their strongest, most memorable playing on these tunes.
Frisell's work with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (documented here on three tunes from 1984's Rambler ) has a sharper edge, more extreme in tone and color than the rest of the collection. Frisell plays here and there with effects to thicken atmospheric backgrounds and sharpen his crispy improvisations. You can hear the roots of his post-ECM music in the soft blues of "Lonesome" and the stretched, gossamer meanderings of "Alien Prints." Just in case you thought you had Frisell pinned down, he tosses out "Hangdog," a punchy, dissonant fragment from the same record, 1987's Lookout for Hope.
The luminaries: Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, Kenny Wheeler, Joey Baron, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Paul Bley, John Surman. (Definitely in the big leagues.) The big surprise: Frisell on banjo on "Hangdog." He turns the instrument inside out and it works.
(Note: this disc represents the fifth volume of :rarum, a series of artist-picked compilations from ECM Records. It comes with brief notes by the artists, an extensive biography, and discographical information.)
Personnel: Bill Frisell: guitars, banjo, guitar synth; Joe Lovano: ts; Billy Drewes: as; Ed Schuller: b; Paul Motian: d; Jan Garbarek: ss; Eberhard Weber: b; Michael DiPasqua: d; Kenny Wheeler: tpt, ct; Bob Stewart: tuba; Jerome Harris: bg; Hank Roberts: cello; Kermit Driscoll: bg; Joe Baron: d; Lee Konitz: as; Dave Holland: b; Paul Bley: p; John Surman: ss; Jamie McCarthy: recorder; Roger Heaton: cl; Alexander Balanescu: v; Martin Allen: vb; John White: p; Gavin Bryars: b.