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Bill Frisell: Music IS

Ian Patterson By

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Widely touted as Bill Frisell's second solo recording, and his first since the darkly introspective Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000), Music IS is, in fact, the guitarist's third, with the oddly overlooked Silent Comedy seemingly having slipped by most folk. That outing, on John Zorn's Tzadik label, was unique in Frisell's discography for being freely improvised, whereas Music IS revisits and reworks classic Frisell compositions, all the way back to his first ECM recordings as leader in 1983/4. This set of all-originals—including several new tunes—sees Frisell employ bass, ukulele, his trademark loops, and music boxes, in addition to electric and acoustic guitars. The interweaving layers of rhythmic and harmonic lines, and the painterly ambient textures, in effect add up to intimate conversations with himself.

These multiple voices running parallel throughout sparkle like a small ensemble in flow. This approach may seem slightly at odds with the notion of a solo recording but, in a way, the multiple layers, at play from the opening, aptly named "Pretty Stars," are the perfect reflection of a musician as renowned for his comping nuances as for his genre-blurring leadership.

Three newly-minted numbers run back-to-back and, in their shared economy, gentle pace and atmospheric character, form a dreamy triptych of sorts. On "Thankful," an elegant, cinematic number played on electric guitar and bass, nearly every phrase echoes faintly like a call and response. The laid back "What Do You Want?," which could almost be an outtake from Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001), pitches sparse, melodic lead and counterpoint against a backdrop of shimmering drone. At least four interlocking lines weave subtly persuasive harmonies on "Change in the Air." The slowly ambling "Ron Carter"—with just a hint of Wes Montgomery surfacing—also seduces harmonically. In these slower, ruminative moods, Frisell hooks with an emotional power that belies his frugal vocabulary.

With "Think About It" there's a brief nod—fifty nine seconds worth—to the edgier solo improvisations of the aforementioned Silent Comedy but, in the main, Frisell pursues the understated, yet beguiling lyricism that is his stock in trade. Ukulele adds rhythmic pulse and country-ish texture to the loop-punctuated "Rambler" but, for the most part, Frisell is plugged in. The album's only acoustic numbers, "The Pioneers" and "Made to Shine" are, in their beautiful simplicity, two of Frisell's most arresting performances, and beg the question as to why he hasn't recorded acoustically more often.

The spare, bluesy architecture and harmonic finesse of "Monica Jane" recall Frisell's rendition with Jim Hall, from their duo album Hemispheres (ArtistShare, 2008), though the tinkling, music box intro and the woozy loops outro are pure Frisell. "Miss You" is simple in melodic design yet broodingly hypnotic, while another new composition, "Go Happy Lucky," feels like homage to Thelonious Monk.

Monk, replying to the notion held in some quarters that his songs were somehow difficult, told Downbeat's Nat Hentoff in 1956, "Some of my pieces have melodies a nitwit can understand." The same, perhaps, could be said for the way Frisell fashions beauty with depth from seemingly simple material. And like Monk, Frisell sounds like nobody but himself. A captivating recording from an American original.

Track Listing: Pretty Stars; Winslow Homer; Change in the Air; What Do You Want?; Thankful; Ron Carter; Think About It; In Line; Rambler; The Pioneers; Monica Jane; Miss You; Go Happy Lucky; Kentucky Derby; Made to Shine; Rambler (bonus, alternate version).

Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric & acoustic guitars, loops, bass, ukelele, music boxes.

Title: Music IS | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Okeh

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