Thursday, May 22, 2008

An American Dream

Bill Frisell - History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008)

The American guitarist and composer Bill Frisell continues to divide opinion. There are still some elitists who snobbishly deride what they see as his diluted version of jazz. I remain an ardent admirer of his work for the same reasons some people are suspicious of him – particularly his incorporation of an American folk tradition into an otherwise improvisatory idiom (and his attendant knowledge of the development of popular music) and his preference for lyricism and textural variation over virtuosic flourishes. Indeed, the two words of the title pretty much encapsulate the essence of his oeuvre.

After a few listens, I’m coming to the opinion that the 2CD ‘History, Mystery’ might be my favourite work he has produced to date, and that is praise indeed. Leading a strings, horn and rhythm octet, the work seems to summarise many of his musical concerns within one neat 90 minute suite. Drawn from studio work and live performance, it also has that blissful combination of orchestration and spontaneity that characterises his best work.

Much of it is original material – commissioned for a couple of collaborative projects with the worlds of art and radio – but there are also some choice covers that demonstrate Frisell’s mastery of interpretation. His reading of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is richly nuanced and, in its own way, as haunting and moving as the original. The version of Boubacar Traore’s ‘Baba Drame’ is cleverly reworked to hint at the intersection between African music and the American folk tradition. The inclusion of a Thelonious Monk piece ought to remind sceptics of Frisell’s jazz grounding too.

It is all neatly woven together by some delicate and inquisitive arranging from Frisell, with the main pieces interspersed with concise but impressionistic mood pieces. Themes are introduced, reprised, reshaped and developed. There’s a sense of Frisell dealing in colour as much as sound, and much of ‘History, Mystery’ seems appropriately sepia-stained. It is all immensely subtle, with strings and brass adding low-key shading, often implying more than stating Frisell’s memorable themes. Even the relatively gritty ‘Struggle’ sounds commendably restrained. This relatively large ensemble rejects the temptation towards excess and the playing is always graceful and refined. This is the work of mature and experienced musicians, well-versed in sensitivity and meaning.

Some will no doubt mourn the relative lack of searing improvisation here. Soloing is restricted to a minimum, and where there is space for exposition, it is much more about expressive tone than audacious musical linguistics. Frisell himself arguably gets the best of it, although Greg Tardy certainly explores spiritedly on tenor sax when invited. The music is not radical if the word ‘radical’ implies dissonance or abstraction – but it is innovative through combining such varying concerns so comfortably. It’s also simultaneously sensuous and precise, which is a great achievement in itself. There’s a smouldering feel to much of this slow-tempo music – and it is a substantial and inspired work.

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