Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell: Sign of Life - Music for 858 Quartet

John Kelman BY

Sign in to view read count
Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell: Sign of Life - Music for 858 Quartet
Bill Frisell

Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartet

Savoy Jazz


Bill Frisell fans attending the 2010 Ottawa International Jazz Festival were given a rare opportunity to catch two groups, for whom the guitarist was planning releases in the coming months: his new Beautiful Dreamers trio, a couple months before the release of its eponymous debut; and his more longstanding 858 Quartet, a full ten months before the release of Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartet, the long overdue follow-up to Richter 858 (Songlines, 2005). While Beautiful Dreamers performed some of the album in advance of its release, that wasn't the case for 858, since Frisell was still three full months away from putting pen to paper for Sign of Life. It wasn't until mid-September 2010, in fact, that he traveled to the Vermont Studio Center, an artists' retreat , where he spent the better part of a month composing and rehearsing Sign of Life, before taking 858 to Berkley, California's Fantasy Studios, to record the album at the end of October.

Frisell's move to Savoy—a change that allows him to issue albums more frequently, and with less of the lag time that sometimes happened between recording and release with Nonesuch, his home for 20 years—has clarified and debunked a couple of popular misconceptions about his long tenure with his previous label. First, based on his initial Savoy releases, there's clearly been no outside pressure driving the decision-making behind Frisell's music; both records demonstrate a softer side to the guitarist, and are clear and logical progressions from the music of both History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008) and Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009). Second, while neither disc is as overtly "Americana" as earlier, career-defining discs like Nashville (Nonesuch, 1996) or Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999), his current music bears the same unmistakable roots in a variety of American traditions, ranging from folk music to blues, and from jazz to quintessentially American classical composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, along with hints of Philip Glass or Steve Reichian minimalism. All of this, of course, refracted through that strange prism which defines Frisell's music, a kind of odd dissemination/diffusion that's evident, even when he turns a more decided eye to stylistic experiments like the bluegrass/country persuasions of The Willies (Nonesuch, 2002).

If Richter 858 was proof that a post-Nashville Frisell hadn't lost his edge—tracks such as "858-1" are as angular and jagged as anything that came from the guitarist's New York days of the late 1980s/early 1990s—Sign of Life is, more than anything else, evidence that music is not just a reflection of who we are; it's a reflection of where we are. Nestled in the heart of the northern Green Mountains, with more time to focus only on the writing, Sign of Life reflects a relaxed sense of calm, despite a skewed tonality that is, quite simply, the evolving language of Frisell. The oblique harmonies of the title track, and its gentle shifting of meter, would have sounded completely at home on Where in the World?, one of Frisell's most overlooked albums with his early quartet— a group that also featured cellist Hank Roberts, one of 858's members, alongside violist Eyvind Kang, who first collaborated with Frisell on the breakthrough Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996), and a more recent addition to the guitarist's growing cadre of players, violinist Jenny Scheinman. In fact, while fans and critics strive to delineate Frisell's now four-decade career, close examination, dating right back to his first album as a leader, In Line (ECM, 1983), clarifies that many of the elements that have coalesced into a more developed vernacular have been there all along; Frisell simply places greater or lesser emphasis on these building blocks, depending on the project.

As much as Sign of Life is an album of, in places, very detailed composition, what gives this music its life and sound of surprise is the 858 Quartet itself, a group for whom Frisell rarely assigns specific parts; instead, the collaborative nature of the music—music that's rarely about featured soloists, though individual voices do periodically emerge, only to gradually subsume within the quartet's collective sound—is reflected by the songwriting credit in the liner notes: "All music composed by Bill Frisell...All arrangements (on the spot and subject to change) by Bill Frisell, Eyvind Kang, Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinman." That Frisell starts the tranquil closer, "As It Should Be," alone, only to have Kang and Roberts twist its lyrical, near-naïve theme on its side by departing from Scheinman's allegiance to that melody through a descent into soft but unsettling dissonance, before uncannily reuniting in gentle consonance for a definitive conclusion—all in a brief 112 seconds—speaks to the quartet's interpretive power; one that transcends phrasing and dynamics to actually reinvent the writing with an approach to improvisation that's more holistic than individualistic.

858 Quartet, from left: Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts

Frisell toys with quirky country on "Suitcase in My Hand," while the hypnotically repetitive, minimalist string parts that support Frisell's overdriven—yet still curiously delicate and quiet—guitar lines, provide an unrelenting pulse as the song opens up like a flower slowly coming into the light. Frisell's wry sense of humor—clearly on display in his choice of album art for some of his recordings, and collaborations with graphic artists like Jim Woodring for the Seattle show (#012) that's part of his growing Live Download Series (Songline/Tonefield, 2007)—pops up here and there, on tracks like "Mother's Daughter," where the simplest of lines becomes remarkable grist for the quartet, each player picking up and putting down melodic fragments, like a modern and more reductionist version of Terry Riley's infamous In C (Columbia, 1968).

That these compositions were not actually conceived as a continuous suite—that they were written, instead, discretely, and with no linkages in mind—speaks to 858 Quartet's ability to transcend individual high points (of which there are many), instead revealing a clear, cogent narrative amidst this 54-minute collection of 17 miniatures. It may not possess the hard surfaces and sharp edges that some believe are endemic to the creation of adventurous music, but Sign of Life is no less daring because of it. Filled with unexpected twists and turns that, after a number of revealing and rewarding listens, are clearly as much about 858's approach to the music as it is the music itself, Sign of Life continues Frisell's lifelong exploration of richly divergent—yet ultimately convergent—paths, drawn together in a myriad of permutations and combinations.

Tracks: It's a Long Story; Old Times; Sign of Life; Friend of Mine (1); Wonderland; It's a Long Story (2); Mother Daughter; Youngster; Recollection; Suitcase in My Hand; Sixty Four; Friend of Mind (2); Painter; Teacher; All the People, All the Time; Village; As It Should Be.

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

Photo Credit

Juan-Carlos Hernandez

Track Listing

01. It's a Long Story; 02. Old Times; 03. Sign of Life; 04. Friend of Mine (1); 05. Wonderland; 06. It's a Long Story (2); 07. Mother Daughter; 08. Youngster; 09. Recollection; 10. Suitcase in My Hand; 11. Sixty Four; 12. Friend of Mind (2); 13. Painter; 14. Teacher; 15. All the People, All the Time; 16. Village; 17. As It Should Be. Tutte le composizioni sono di Bill Frisell.


Bill Frisell: chitarra; Jenny Scheinman: violino; Eyvind Kang: viola; Hank Roberts: violoncello.

Album information

Title: Sign of Life | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Savoy Jazz

Post a comment about this album



Shop Amazon


A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday
Wadada Leo Smith, Vijay Iyer & Jack DeJohnette
Dave Zinno
On A Mountain
Shannon Gunn
In Between
Erik Palmberg
Without You, No Me
Temple University Jazz Band
Fools For Yule
Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet
Phil Parisot
Mabern Plays Coltrane
Harold Mabern


Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.