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Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell: Big Sur

John Kelman By

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Most, if not all, musicians value the relationships—both musical and friendship—that they build over the years, but few are as loyal as guitarist Bill Frisell. One look at his various releases over the past couple of decades and it becomes instantly clear that, once he has established a successful working and personal relationship with another musician, he rarely ever calls on anyone else. With the exception of Rudy Royston—who, since first collaborating with the guitarist in 2007, has regularly split the drum stool with Kenny Wollesen—every member of the group on Big Sur has been Frisell's sole choice on their instruments. That degree of loyalty also has a lot to do with trust, something that all musicians need , but in particular for Frisell, whose music demands a kind of unspoken confidence in everyone's ability to not just contribute individually, but to come together as a whole far great than the sum of its parts.

Big Sur—Frisell's debut for Sony's restarted Okeh imprint and the guitarist's return to a major label after spending a couple years on the independent Savoy Jazz—brings together two of his groups, the trio responsible for Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz, 2010) and his longstanding 858 Quartet, last heard on Sign of Life (Savoy Jazz, 2011). With violist Eyvind Kang (and, of course, Frisell) the connecting thread between the two groups, what Big Sur is, then, is a string quartet (with Frisell replacing one of the violins) with a stronger pulse.

858 has, of course, always been able to shape its own rhythms, as it most assuredly did at its 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival performance, but with the addition of Royston, it allows the music of Big Sur to unfold with an even stronger sense of groove...rocking out, even, as it does on "A Good Spot" and "The Big One," a riff-driven blues with a go-go beat that evokes images of the 1960s and the importance of the California area of Big Sur that, with its long stretches of surf-ready coastline, became an important focal point of inspiration for not just rock (The Beach Boys and, more recently, Death Can for Cuties), jazz (Charles Lloyd and classical (John Adams) music, but an important epicenter for photographers like Ansel Adams and writers like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

Frisell's 65-minute suite was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival—the absolutely appropriate source, situated, as it is, just north of Big Sur's largely unpopulated 90-mile stretch of coastline. Largely composed during a 10-day stay at Big Sur's Glen Deven Ranch and later rehearsed there by the entire quintet—Frisell paying tribute on the opening "The Music of Glen Deven Ranch," which feels almost like an overture to a suite cinematic in scope and evocative of this unique place in the world—it was a rare opportunity for Frisell, who seems to almost always be on the road or busy with a recording, to have some real down time to write.

The result is a work that somehow manages to evoke not just the part of the country which is its inspiration, but American music as a whole. There are, with Frisell now in his fourth decade as a recording artist, plenty of others informed by the humble guitarist's gentle yet, at times oblique lyricism, his ability to play even the simplest triad-based chord without losing his voice, and his unmistakable idiosyncrasies that render repeated readings of popular cover songs like Hank Williams, Sr.'s "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" utterly personal. But as much as certain Frisellian signatures have been seconded by others, he remains a guitarist often imitated but never duplicated.

With Royston driving the group with a stronger pulse—even on the more balladic tracks like "Song for Lana Works," featuring cellist Hank Roberts, or "Going to California," with Frisell's layers of overdriven, tremolo'd and ever-sweet clean tone at the fore—Big Sur provides Frisell's 858 Quartet to be stronger and more immediate. And if Frisell's guitar remains unifying throughout, so, too, is the entire group's approach—a constantly evolving one that, over the past several years and numerous permutations and combinations, largely supplants individualism with the mitochondria-leveled symbiotic synergism that defines Big Sur and demonstrates just how, with the seemingly mere addition of one musician in Royston, the collective multilateralism is significantly altered.

That's not to say everyone doesn't get the chance to shine; only that it's less about creating a context for soloing and more about an instrumental mix that's constantly and organically shifting, so that Kang and violinist Jenny Scheinman interweave over Frisell and Roberts' pedal tone on the harmonically static, near-Celtic traditionalism of "The Animals," while cellist Hank Roberts rises to the top on the ethereal "Big Sur," doubling Frisell's serpentine melody while Scheinman and Kang's ascending and descending harmonies provide a gentle, constantly shifting foundation.

There are numerous homages throughout Big Sur—some direct, like the folkloric "We All Love Neil Young," a duet for Frisell and Kang; others more implicit, like the surf rock-inspired "The Big One" and more harmonically recondite "Highway 1," where Frisell's quirkier side comes forward." Together, Big Sur is an album that, as with other thematically conceptualized Frisell recordings like Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009) and History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008)—an album that also expanded the 858 Quartet but, in that case, with a much larger configuration—is best absorbed in its entirety rather than as individual tracks.

Is it jazz? Hard to say. Does it matter? Not one whit. There's no doubt that the improvisational spirit of jazz imbues and informs Big Sur and its reliance on interpreting Frisell's all-original set of 19 miniatures (only one cracking the five minute mark, more than half coming in under four). Instead, Big Sur represents Frisell's ongoing consolidation and confluence of a growing number of touchstones and, after his focus on the music of John Lennon on All We Are Saying (Savoy Jazz, 2011) and subsequent touring in 2012 (including a transcendent Ottawa performance), is a superb and most welcome return to not just Frisell the wondrous guitarist, but Frisell the inimitable composer.

Track Listing: The Music of Glen Deven Ranch; Sing Together Like a Family; A Good Spot; Going to California; The Big One; Somewhere; Gather Good Things; Cry Alone; The Animals; Highway 1; A Beautiful View; Hawks; We All Love Neil Young; Big Sur; On the Lookout; Shacked Up; Walking Stick (for Jim Cox); Song for Lana Weeks; Far Away.

Personnel: Bill Frisell: guitar; Jenny Scheinman: violin; Eyvind Kang: viola; Hank Roberts: cello; Rudy Royston: drums.

Title: Bill Frisell: Big Sur | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Okeh

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