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Bill Frisell: Unspeakable

John Kelman By

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Some artists spend an entire lifetime within a narrow genre, honing their skill and working at stretching the boundaries of that style, while others transcend all definitions and labels, creating a music that defies categorization. Such is the case with guitarist Bill Frisell, who over a twenty-five year career has contributed to everything from the Nordic cool of Jan Garbarek's quartet to the downtown edge of John Zorn's Naked City. On his own records he has explored diverse landscapes including the urban sprawl of Before We Were Born and the American heartland of Good Dog, Happy Man.

Always the sum of his parts, Frisell has constantly managed to bring forward past experiences into new contexts, never more so than on his new release, Unspeakable, which finally teams him for a full album with producer Hal Willner, with whom Frisell has worked in the past on projects as varied as the Mingus project Weird Nightmare and Stay Awake, an album of Disney film music. The result is a recording that stretches the imagination farther than anything Frisell has done to date and defines him as an artist who has created a personal musical landscape that is less about what is being played and more about what that playing evokes.

With a core group including long-time musical partners, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Frisell continues to explore rhythmic grooves. But with the addition of a three-piece string section, three-piece horn section, percussion and Hal Willner's turntables and samples, the textures available are richer than ever before. Frisell builds rich layers of guitars, and continues to mine the "everyone solos and nobody solos" ground that has been the trademark of his work for many years. But collaborating with Willner has created a whole new level of sonics.

As a starting point for compositions that are sometimes Frisell's alone, but more often collaborative efforts with Willner and/or engineer Eric Liljestrand, Frisell and Willner looked to an extensive library of obscure songs and sounds culled from vintage vinyl recordings. Sometimes the compositions fit neatly within the context of the samples, other times Frisell digresses, moving things into completely unknown territory.

Frisell has always been an extremely visual writer and player, but his teaming with Willner has resulted in his most cinematic effort yet. Yes, there are elements of the Americana that has obsessed Frisell so over the past few years, on tracks including the tender "Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye," but equally present are the world music concerns that have captured his attention in more recent times, on "1968," and the most manifest soul that Frisell has ever shown on "White Fang" and "Del Close."

That Frisell has chosen to use his guitar as a sonic paintbrush rather than a simple purveyor of chops means that there are those who will be disappointed; but for those who prefer their music to tell stories and create vivid images, Unspeakable is another high point in an already significant body of work.

Track Listing: 1968; White Fang; Sundust; Del Close; Gergory C.; Stringbean; Hymn for Ginsberg; Alias; Who Was That Girl?; D. Sharpe; Fields of Alfalfa; Tony; Old Sugar Bear; Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye

Personnel: Bill Frisell (guitars, string arrangements), Hal Willner (turntables, samples), Tony Scherr (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums), Don Alias (percussion), Steven Bernstein (trumpet, horn arrangements), Briggan Krauss (baritone saxophone), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Adam Dorn (synthesizer, additional editing)
with The 858 Strings: Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Hank Roberts (cello)

Title: Unspeakable | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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