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Bill Frisell: Good Dog, Happy Man

Douglas Payne By

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Every note Bill Frisell plays - or suggests - offers an impressionistic soundtrack of the American vernacular. It is jazz only in the way improvisation is a reflection of sensibilities. But Frisell's music is really not just jazz. It swings over a wide swath of American musical forms: jazz, rock, grunge, blues, country, folk, bluegrass, even commercial orchestration. Call it a sort of 'sound Americana': peculiar, individual and unusually compelling.

Good Dog Happy Man ideally documents another set of Frisell's colorful, commanding tone poems. It's something of a story in progress, one that took root in 1994's This Land and became clearer on 1997's Nashville and 1998's exquisite Gone, Just Like A Train (bassist Marc Johnson's outstanding Sounds of Summer Running probably counts too).

Frisell, early in his two-decades career, offered a wholly individual sound, buffering a certain dissonance with a poetic melodicism. But, here he shows how he's evolved into one of the most melodic and memorable of stylists — etching out something that is often pastoral, elegiac and, at times, oddly patriotic. These are the moods filmmakers co-opt for onscreen archetypes reaching pivotal moments and branded in all those TV ads for investment firms and prescription medicines. But Frisell keeps it honest. He sets the mood and offers the soundtrack. The listener is free to conceive his or her own impressions.

Here, bassist Viktor Kruass (Allison's brother) and drummer/studio legend Jim Keltner return from last year's Gone trio aided by studio guitarist Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Dobro, steel guitar and mandolin and, in a welcome return, fellow Seattle resident Wayne Horvitz on organ. Frisell sticks mostly to electric or acoustic guitar and his 'meditations' are often buoyed by intriguing counterpoint: Horvitz's spikey organ comments on "My Buffalo Girl" and "Cadillac 1959," the brief primal utterances of "Roscoe" and the dream-team coupling with Ry Cooder on the lovely "Shenandoah."

Frisell's melodies are quite often little more than sustained riffs, at once simple and perfectly structured and at other times, remotely familiar (for example, the Pretenders's "Back on the Chain Gang" is vaguely at the heart of "That Was Then"). Frisell is the only real notable soloist. As if in a Steve Reich construction, Frisell rarely strays far from the melody, or outside of the prevailing mood the unit conspires to create together.

The point is the story - reflections on feelings and meditations on moods. Darkness and light. A sense of honor with a sense of humor. It's hardly America as sketched by Louis L'Amour, Jim Thompson or a score of other American writers. Frisell isn't coming out of irony, bleakness, sarcasm or slight. Good Dog, Happy Man comes out of Frisell's evident love for things American and an encyclopedic grasp on expressing the ways Americans sense things. A triumph indeed.

Songs:Rain, Rain; Roscoe; Big Shoe; My Buffalo Girl; Shenandoah (for Johnny Smith); Cadillac 1959; The Pioneers; Cold, Cold Ground; That Was Then; Monroe; Good Dog, Happy Man; Poem for Eva.

Players:Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loops and music boxes; Greg Leisz: pedal steel, Dobro, lap steel, Weissenborn, National steel guitar and mandolin; Wayne Horvitz: organ, piano, samples; Viktor Krauss: bass; Jim Keltner: drums and percussion; Ry Cooder: electric guitar, Ripley guitar on "Senandoah".

Track Listing: 1. Rain, Rain 2. Roscoe 3. Big Shoe 4. My Buffalo Girl 5. Shenandoah 6. Cadillac 1959 7. The Pioneers 8. Cold Cold Ground 9. That Was Then 10. Monroe 11. Good Dog, Happy Man 12. Poem for Eva

Title: Good Dog, Happy Man | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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