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Pairing two such superior soloists as guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Fred Hersch seems a most unlikely match. Despite having gigged together a couple times in the 1980s, the only thing the two seem to have in common is they both record for Nonesuch Records. As it turns out, it was Fred Hersch's idea to finally get the two together in the studio - and it couldn't have been a more inspired combination.
The brilliant, eclectic Frisell is perhaps the most original guitarist of the last two or three decades and he's hardly ever combined his unique sound arsenal with a pianist.
Hersch, on the other hand, has carved out a substantial body of work illustrating his sensitivity as a soloist and finesse as a superior accompanist (particularly for singers), yet he's almost never heard with a guitarist.
The result is the marvelous new Songs We Know, a fine song cycle of contemporary jazz standards, played with a laid-back ease that only two such sharp and original stylists can bring to such well-known music.
Frisell and Hersch concur that the session could have gone many different ways, but it was their mutual love for the standards, with their open palette of simplicity, history and potential for new interpretation that lead to the inspired sounds heard on Songs We Know.
Both leaders have logged many miles playing these and other standards too: Frisell, as part of Paul Motian's trio with tenor giant Joe Lovano, and Hersch, through his recent Plays Monk and Plays Rogers & Hammerstein discs and, even more substantially, on his jazz-the-classics Angel recordings.
But, together, Frisell and Hersch - like Bill Evans and Jim Hall did together before them bring to bear a fresh chemistry that is too rarely applied to such oft-played material. Hersch remains a melodic, sensitive - even erudite - explorer. And Frisell maintains his sense of humor and displays his ever-inspired internal logic. Together, they explore and experiment with the contours of each other's sound and style and arrive some place that neither might have approached on their own before.
The eleven Songs We Know have many highlights. Chief among the pleasures to be heard here include the playful and unusually funky "There Is No Greater Love," where Frisell's textbook witticisms engage with Hersch's perky, almost abstract commentary. Likewise, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave" is creative music at its most expressive: where Hersch's piano provides the soft undercurrent while Frisell's sprite, melodic tones carry the tide in, conveying the hypnotic beauty of the sea that Jobim intended.
The two engage most spectacularly, and so nearly at odds, on "What is This Thing Called Love," where the metallic Frisell frolics in the warm cushions Hersch's block chords provide. Then, the pair commiserates romantically (a Hersch specialty) on the lullaby-like (a Frisell specialty) "Someday My Prince Will Come."
For real fireworks, listen to how quickly the two depart from the corniness of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" to explore a Monk-like tango of arched, deconstructed sonorities. Then, hear how their dissimilarities are unified on the dance-like "My Little Suede Shoes," where Frisell lays down a jig style head while Hersch's interacts brilliantly with lovely tango cadences.
Songs We Know is a success - and, more notably, a singularly pleasurable listening experience because it's about more than songs. It's about sounds. Separately, these two stylists have crafted much music that is about the creation and interaction of sounds. Together, they have achieved something special, or what Boston Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal calls in his excellent liner notes, "an example of how texture works to shape a performance as directly as melodic or rhythmic invention."
Recorded in San Francisco last year, Songs We Know pins down the provocative sensitivity both Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell bring to creative music. But more importantly, it captures the wondrous result of two great minds spontaneously being expressed as one strong voice. It is a collection that calls out for more, hopefully an added set of the pair's originals. Until then, Songs We Know are songs creative music listeners will want to hear.
Songs:It Might As Well Be Spring; There Is No Greater Love; Someday My Prince Will Come; Softly As In A Morning Sunrise; Blue Monk; My One And Only Love; My Little Suede Shoes; Yesterdays; I Got Rhythm; Wave; What Is This Thing Called Love.
Players:Fred Hersch: Steinway piano; Bill Frisell: acoustic and Klien electric guitar.