It's always been a not-so-hidden truth, especially in the jazz world, that fans only get a small window into what their favorite artists are about. Artists' commercial releasesusually no more than one per yearrarely document the entirety of the various projects with which they're involved in the course of those 12 months. And when you're someone like guitarist Bill Frisell, who seems to be almost endlessly on the road with various permutations and combinations of the expanding cadre of musicians from which he draws for his projectsincluding his recent Beautiful Dreamers group, duo dates with longtime pedal steel/dobro guitarist Greg Liesz, and a John Lennon Tribute with Liesz and violinist Jenny Scheinmanit's nearly impossible to keep up. With recording technology now cheap enough and transportable enough to make high-quality documents of each and every gig, it's become a great time to fill in those blanks. Of course, the artist has to cooperate and release those shows, but that's just what Frisell has been doing for the past couple of years releasing digital-only shows as part of an ongoing Live Download Series
, which provide the opportunity to hear a greater cross section of the projects with which the guitarist has been involved.
But even when it comes to commercial recordings released in hard media, with marketing pushes from labels like Nonesuchthe label that, until mid-2009, had been his home for 20 yearsFrisell has found himself needing more than the usual one-per-year vehicle. With Beautiful Dreamersa new project that Frisell wanted to recordand his near-decade-old 858 Quartet in need of putting some new music out in the world, Frisell faced a tough choice: stay with Nonesuch and live with one release each year, or dissolve the relationship. It had been Nonesuch that, after he'd established himself with the German ECM label in the early '80s, provided him the exposure and freedom to build his name and reputation as an artist ready to change directionsif not exactly on a whim, then certainly often to the surprise of those who'd just started to think they knew what he was about. Nonesuch, after all, has given Frisell an internationally distributed vehicle for everything from his mid-'90s sextet of remarkable compositional depth on This Land
(1994) and the groundbreaking (and controversial) bluegrass/fusion music of Nashville
(1996), to the unorthodox guitar/trumpet/trombone/viola of Quartet
(1996) and the sample-driven music of the Grammy Award
"It wasn't like any big thing," Frisell recalls about his decision to part ways with Nonesuch and hook up with Savoy Jazz. "We didn't have a fight, I'm totally on good terms, and I can't even believe how amazing that time with them was. The last thing I want to do is say they weren't coming through; it was just an extraordinary 20 years. I guess it's part of the nature of the times, but they just couldn't get the stuff out as fast as I was making it. It was a mutual decision; they just couldn't keep up with what I wanted to do, so we just agreed for me to try something else.
There were maybe a couple possibilities," Frisell continues. "I wasn't sure, at first, with Beautiful Dreamers
. I had already booked a studio and was going to pay for it myselfI wanted to do it at that time because the music was ready, and I just didn't want to wait. And I would have put it out myself, but then Savoy just came along, and that was kind of a break for me. And right away, they also wanted to do the 858 thing, and that was really somethingthey're just six months apart [actually, seven: Beautiful Dreamers
was released in August, 2010, and Sign of LifeMusic for 858 Quartet
in April, 2011]. That was kinda crazy. And it's a little early, and I hate to talk about things that haven't happened yet, but it looks like I'll do an album that's an expanded version of that John Lennon tribute, but it'll be with [bassist] Tony [Scherr] and [drummer] Pato Valdivieso
, and I think we're gonna do that in the summertime , so I think it's just bam, bam, bam. It's only been less than a year, but the kind of energy they're putting into itit feels really good, and they really seem to care about it. I'm not Justin Bieber [laughs]; it's not the most accessible stuff, but they're really trying. I just don't know what's happening with the whole business of selling CDs, but it seems like they're doing everything they possibly can."
858 Quarteta new spin on the classical string quartet, where one of the violins is replaced with Frisell's guitar, alongside Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts
has been around for some time, but it's only released one album to date, and while Richter 858
was made available to a larger audience by Canada's Songlines label in 2005, it was actually first issued as part of a limited-run book of artwork by German painter Gerhard Richter, in 2002. So it's been nearly a decade since the quartet last recorded together, despite touring on a semi-regular basis, including a sublime performance
at the 2010 Ottawa International Jazz Festival, that came a night after he played with Beautiful Dreamers
Kang and drummer Rudy Royston
at the same festival.
Beautiful Dreamers largely focused on material from its then-upcoming, self-titled debut (its first for Savoy Jazz), but 858 wasn't playing any of the music that would come to be recorded four months later, at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, for one simple reason: Frisell had yet to write material for the new 858 album. The guitarist wouldn't do so, in fact, until just a month before the studio session, when he spent four weeks at an artists' enclave in Vermont, called the Vermont Studio Center. "I've never done anything like that before," Frisell explains. "I was in Vermont for a month, at this Vermont Studio Center. It's in a little town called Johnson, Vermont, and it's about an hour from Burlington, so it's way up there. It's an amazing, beautiful place: mainly painters and sculptors and writers; they've never had musicians before, and they don't even really have facilities for musicians. I was in a painting studio, this empty white room with a desk, and it was incredible just to have that kind of space and time.