In an extraordinarily varied career Bill Frisell
has made just a handful of trio recordings as leader, which is perhaps surprising given how frequently he performs in such a setting. In recent years the Baltimore-born, Denver-raised guitarist has toured two of his most empathetic trios, that with Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr
and, latterly, with Rudy Royston
and Thomas Morgan
but, until now, without venturing into the studio. Valentine
marks the studio debut of the Frisell, Royston and Morgan trio, though the drummer and bassist were part of Frisell's quintet on When You Wish Upon A Star
(Okeh, 2015). Valentine
comes off the back of two years of international touring and was recorded straight after a two-week run at the Village Vanguard. Not for nothing do these thirteen tracks exude something very close to live energy.
Like Thelonious Monk
and Duke Ellington
, Frisell has always revisited old compositions with new line-ups, rewiring the circuitry and mining fresh vocabulary. The majority of tunes here are reworkings of older material. Though Frisell has visited many a Monk tune over the years, it is the spirit of Monk he addresses on the self-penned title track, his playfully angular blues buoyed by Morgan's walking bass. The trio's exploratory bent is heard to great effect on Billy Strayhorn
's "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing," where Royston's skittering brushes and Morgan's melodic counterpoint weave intuitively around Frisell's mazy inventions.
It may be tempting with this platter to compare old and new versions, but that would be an apples and oranges scenario. Malian singer-songwriter/guitarist Boubacar Traoré's "Baba Drame"from Frisell's wonderful The Intercontinentals
(Elektra Nonesuch, 2003)is more skeletal compared to the original, but still hypnotic. Frisell strays little from Traoré's infectious melodies as Morgan and Royston cook up increasingly buoyant rhythms. And from Malian blues to the Delta kind with "Levees," from Frisell's soundtrack to Bill Morrison's documentary The Great Flood
(Icarus Films, 2014). Here, Morgan's probing bass and Royston's roiling rhythms provide the perfect foil to Frisell's restless yet graceful course.
The previously unrecorded "Electricity"written for another Morrison filmhas a more contemporary edge, with guitarist and bassist carving a quirky melodic path in unison over Royston's propulsive grooves. Also getting a first run out is "Hour Glass," a curiously atmospheric piece composed by Frisell for Hal Willner
's production Kaddish
[see Ludovico Granvassu
's 2020 interview with Frisell
], based on an Allen Ginsberg poem; drone underpins Frisell's spare twang and pedal effects, with bass and rumbling mallets restless partners in the dramaturgy. The spare architecture of the ruminative "Winter Always Turns to Spring" highlights Frisell's knack of conjuring simple, yet haunting melodies and harmonics. Morgan's arresting counterpoint and Royston's fluttering brushes deeply color this dark-hued cut from Ghost Town
(Elektra Nonesuch, 2000).
The trio explores folksy pastoralism on the acoustic "Where Do We Go," toe-tapping Western Americana on the old Billy Hill/Pete de Rose anthem "Wagon Wheel," and cheery groove on "Keep It Down" from Frisell's mold-breaking Nashville
(Elektra Nonesuch, 1997). Most affecting, however, is its reimaging of Hal David & Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," where individual freedom tantalizingly stretches the bounds of collective form. A gorgeous rendition of the gospel song-turned protest anthem "We Shall Overcome," a perennial Frisell calling card, sounds a bucolic note of hope in these turbulent times.
, Frisell, Royston and Morgan revel in the tight but loose interplay that is a hallmark of the best groups, plying a course as deeply lyrical as it is adventurous. Feels like the beginning of a great adventure.
Baba Drame; Hour Glass; Valentine; Levees; Winter Always Turns To Spring; Keep Your Eyes Open; A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing; Electricity; Wagon Wheels; Aunt Mary; What The World Needs Now Is Love; Where Do We Go; We Shall Overcome.