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Bill Frisell: Music IS


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Bill Frisell: Music IS
The tradition of solo jazz guitar recordings is a long one, with guitarists like Johnny Smith, Al Viola, George Van Eps, Lenny Breau and Joe Pass demonstrating just how far a mere six (in some cases, seven) strings could be taken on their own as far back as the 1950s. Subsequent guitar soloists like John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner went even further by, at times, taking advantage of the recording studio's facility to overdub layers of guitar to create even broader expanses. But it's been during the past two decades or so that guitarists like Eivind Aarset and Stian Westerhus have explored extensive use of looping and other technological innovations, truly developing the orchestral potential of their instrument.

But before those two Norwegian innovators came Bill Frisell, at this point a living guitar legend already the subject of Emma Franz's compelling (and revealing) documentary, Bill Frisell: A Portrait (now available on home video). Having begun life largely in the jazz world as a member of groups led by, amongst others, Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Eberhard Weber and Paul Motian, before moving more decidedly into a far-reaching and prolific solo career, Frisell's insatiable interest in all things music has led to a résumé that also includes Salif Keita, Rickie Lee Jones, Paul Simon, David Sylvian and Laurie Anderson amongst his many, many prestigious collaborators, both well-known and deserving of broader recognition.

If ever there was an album title to reflect the infinite potential of an art form that has occupied most of Frisell's life, it's Music IS.

Frisell's second solo guitar release of its kind (Silent Comedy (Tzadik, 2013) was an alternate approach to solo guitar, recorded in real time with no overdubs or other post-production), Music IS comes eighteen years after the similar approach of Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000), itself released seventeen years following his 1983 ECM Records leader debut, In Line (that album split, half and half, between occasionally overdubbed solo tracks and duets with bassist Andersen).

Ghost Town was an eclectic blend, reflecting Frisell's broad musical tastes through the inclusion, in addition to his own compositions, of music by writers ranging from jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and Great American Songbook scribes George Gershwin and Edward Heyman, to country icons A.P. Carter and Hank Williams. But irrespective of his musical sources, it was Frisell's unique voice on a variety of guitars, and his inimitable use of looping, reverse-attack, delay, compression, overdubbing and more that made Ghost Town such an unparalleled and quietly groundbreaking release.

Frisell returns to a similar approach on Music IS, but beyond the significant growth that might be expected, it differs from Ghost Town in other ways. It's also more than just an album title; it's a reduction of the phrase "Music is good," a simple but meaningful statement that Frisell attributes to banjo player (and collaborator on the guitarist's overlooked, 2002 bluegrass-informed The Willies) Danny Barnes. Still, with its intended emphasis, Music IS assumes an even broader meaning that reflects Frisell's career-long refusal to be pigeonholed, despite many attempts from critics and fans alike. Music isn't necessarily jazz, country, folk, roots or classical music, blues, or any of the multiplicity of genres that have been touchstones throughout Frisell's career. Music simply IS, indeed; and the guitarist's long overdue follow-up to Ghost Town reflects, in its often naked vulnerability (and, perhaps, more so than on his many albums released in the ensuing years), Frisell's startling evolution, as he enters the second half of his seventh decade on planet Earth.

Music IS differs from Ghost Town in that its 55-minute program (not including a bonus alternate and thoroughly different take of the title track to his 1984 sophomore ECM date, Rambler, tacked onto the album's end) consists entirely of Frisell compositions, his first recording to do so since Big Sur (Savoy Jazz, 2013). Unlike that group recording, however, Music IS combines music that Frisell has, in many cases, mined often since first appearing (in the case of In Line's title track) as much as 35 years ago, alongside half a dozen compositions making their first recorded appearances here.

Hopefully artists evolve over the course of their careers, but every now and then evolution becomes revolution, and Music IS is, indeed, revolutionary. Frisell has come a long way since his first major label appearance with Eberhard Weber, on the German bassist's Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), with every album reflecting some kind of development and, more importantly, musical assimilation. But Music IS represents a significant leap forward for Frisell as a guitarist, composer and conceptualist.

Frisell's style has always been predicated on a rare ability to sustain passing notes as he (often simultaneously) moves complex voicings and linear phrases up, down and across the neck of his instrument, but rarely has he done so with such seamless sophistication. Nor has he demonstrated such an organic infusion of a variety of electronic devices, which have become more like natural extensions of (and less like add-on effects to) his guitar, itself an intrinsic extension to his conscious and subconscious musical minds. And while he's already proven his acumen at writing for groups of various sizes, he's never realized the guitar as orchestra concept as fully as he does on Music IS.

Frisell bookends the main program with the layered and looped electric guitar opener, "Pretty Stars," and lone acoustic guitar reading of the closing "Made to Shine." Both are distillations of and extrapolations upon the more overtly countrified miniature, "Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine," from Blues Dreams (Nonesuch, 2001). Both versions demonstrate an ability to find new interpretive grist in older material that has rarely been so clear, so focused, so evocative. One, an ideal opener that sets the stage for music to come, the other a perfectly constructed program closer, together they demonstrate, with crystal clarity, Frisell's ability to extract seemingly infinite possibilities from every nook and cranny of even the simplest of songs.

Frisell begins his reinvention of "Winslow Homer" in a fashion similar to the trio version introduced on Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz, 2010), but this time with tapped chords defining the guitarist's harmonically skewed version of a standard blues. Initially a solo electric guitar look at Wynton Marsalis' commission for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, it's how Frisell manages to imply so much with so little that makes this the definitive version. For the first two-and a-half minutes Frisell moves from Thelonious Monk-informed idiosyncrasies to Jim Hall-inspired strumming, where the acoustic sound of his instrument is as dominant as its amplified tone (sometimes, more so). But it's when, with but a minute to spare, Frisell returns to the intro's tapping that the song really takes off. Looping those tapped changes, Frisell then introduces a repeated three-note phrase, layering more and more harmonies atop it that build to a climax...and suddenly cease, with "Winslow Homer" closing as it began: with the sound of a single electric guitar.

Never running the risk of excess, superfluous technical displays or musical gymnastics (despite being capable of all these things and more), Frisell has always been about saying all that needs be said, nothing more and nothing less, with Music IS' sixteen tracks running anywhere from less than a minute to over six. Frisell's grittily angular, jaggedly strummed and tapped "Think About It"—curiously, recorded with Frisell's amplifier placed inside an old upright piano first owned by The Who's Keith Moon, then by The Band's Richard Manuel, who played it on a number of the group's hits, and ultimately with Ian McLagan (The Small Faces, The The Rolling Stones)—builds to a reverse-attacked density of chords and otherworldly sonics in just 59 seconds. Frisell's first look at "Rambler," on the other hand, lasts for more than six-and-a-half minutes, its foundation of looped electronics a strange but ultimately astute choice for the clean-toned, suggestive electric guitar part that, as he stretches and compresses the song's familiar theme, makes unexpected leaps from low to high registers, curiously constructed voicings and on-the-go harmonic reinventions.

Never afraid to leave plenty of holes in the music, Frisell's twanging Fender (or Fender-like) guitar on "Rambler" is also like a guitar history lesson, from Wes Montgomery-informed octave passages and oblique yet somehow still melodic phrases to roots-driven, tremelo-infused chords. Like "Pretty Stars" and "Made to Shine," Music IS' two takes of "Rambler" clearly demonstrate the unfettered potential of Frisell's musical imagination. With but one guitar, one amplifier and no effects, Frisell blends surprising harmonies, perfectly situated harmonics and motif-driven improvisations on the main melody throughout the shorter, alternate version of "Rambler," only to conclude with the song's core changes simplified into a finger-picked series of simpler, folk-infused chords.

Given the song's long history (34 years), Music IS' two very different looks at "Rambler" defy those who feel the need to categorize Frisell's career into genre-specific boxes. The simple truth is: Frisell has always been the square peg in the round hole, reverent of the heart of everything he plays, yet able to blend a variety of stylistic touchstones into a unified whole, redolent of all but determined by none.

A simple, low register loop drives "Ron Carter," a moody Blues Dream piece driven, here, by a different bass ostinato. Frisell slowly, sparingly, builds this take, ultimately adding another simple, two-chord loop layer to create an even richer foundation for his carefully but spontaneously constructed explorations. By contrast, "The Pioneers," a poignantly pretty tune from Frisell's groove-heavy roots collaboration with Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz and Viktor Krauss on Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999), becomes a four-minute rubato tone poem for solo acoustic guitar. It may be relatively simple in theme and structure, but in Frisell's hands it once again assumes no limitations, as the guitarist moves from explicit form to more implicit lines. The wonder, the marvel of it all is that even when he's delivering linear, single-note phrases, it's impossible not to feel the foundational structure of any song he plays.

"Monica Jane," first heard on Paul Bley's Fragments (ECM, 1986), unfolds slowly, Frisell's overdubbed electric guitar parts orbiting around each other but often intersecting in even richer harmonies as its memorable theme emerges with pointillistic care. Beyond the fashion in which he evolves this more harmonically complex chart (gradually adding bass to the picture), its closing minute is further demonstration of Frisell's tangential approach to music-making. A simple bass guitar pattern that appears to be closing the piece is looped to become a new foundation, leading to a passage of abstruse electronics that ultimately takes over and moves into even more stratospheric terrain before suddenly concluding with nothing but a simple, un-effected major chord.

Frisell, longtime producer Lee Townsend and engineer Tucker Martine—the three, along with drummer Matt Chamberlain, responsible for two records as Floratone—recorded each track, with the trio mixing it immediately afterward. Contrasting the norm of recording an album in its entirety, followed by separate mixing sessions (sometimes a long time) later, this was one of a number of ways that Frisell, Townsend and Martine helped bolster the guitarist's relentless spontaneity.

Playing for a week at New York's The Stone prior to the Music IS sessions, Frisell describes the process of preparing for the album in its press sheet: "Each night I attempted new music that I'd never played before. I was purposely trying to keep myself a little off balance. Uncomfortable. Unsure. I didn't want to fall back on things that I knew were safe. My hope was to continue this process right on into the studio. I didn't want to have things be all planned out beforehand." Of Townsend and Martine, who Frisell calls two of his "closest, most trusted musical brothers," Frisell characteristically gives plenty of credit: "They clear the way for me to just PLAY. When we got to the studio I brought a big pile of music and we went from there. Let one thing lead to the next."

Amongst that pile of music was a trifecta of recent Frisell compositions that suggest how he is able to build form in new and surprising ways. "Change in the Air" retains the haunting melody that underscores this piece written for Dianne Dreyer's upcoming film of the same name, combining loops and overdubbed layers of guitars and bass. A gradually accelerating, pulsing electronic drone both introduces and concludes the brooding "What Do You Want?," another miniature where Frisell, once again, brings together loops, layered guitars and bass as he moves from ethereal consonance to the kind of abstract melodism first explored on relatively early albums like Where in the World? (Elektra Nonesuch, 1991).

"Thankful" closes the triptych in more song-based fashion. Dedicated to his family and to the myriad of artists with whom he has collaborated, it's characteristic of this still-humble guitarist who still seems almost in awe of the lifetime of experiences that have come his way, and of those who still want to work with him. A series of descending chords (made increasingly rich as the composition develops) provide a main theme that contrasts with an alternate passage based upon a simple, three-note phrase, under which Frisell layers shifting harmonies. The piece builds sonically and dramatically from spare to dense, as Frisell layers more guitars, including one that's heavily distorted and filtered, along with bass and additional ethereal atmospherics, to shape one of Music IS' biggest-sounding tracks...even as it retains the sense of intimacy that pervades the entire recording.

There are those who want to constrain Frisell with reductionist categorizations. There are also those who accuse Frisell of, over the years, "losing his edge." Frisell lays waste to all such claims (and more) with Music IS, an album that breaks down boundaries even as the guitarist explores what's on either side and finds new ways to assimilate it all into his still-growing musical vernacular. More than many of his undeniably milestone recordings, the exceptional Music IS deserves consideration as both a career high point and a masterpiece of solo guitar. It's also proof that some artists can still, even forty years after their major label debut and with over 250 recorded appearances, release albums destined to become modern classics.

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).


Bill Frisell
guitar, electric

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

Album information

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




Jul 26 Fri

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