Monday, November 21, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #3

Bill Frisell

I can't compare Bill Frisell with other musicians. I think he has more in common with Georgia O'Keeffe and William Faulkner than with Mick Goodrick or Pat Metheny. I love both Goodrick and Metheny — but I think Frisell is on a different level.

He's the only musician whose music evokes imagery in my mind. I've known a lot of musicians who feel that music and film are intimately connected, who close their eyes and see pictures as they play. I've never had that experience except when listening to Bill Frisell. I honestly don't think he "plays"; the best description I can conceive is that he paints.

His impact on guitar remains to be seen, but I think it will be comparable to what Art Tatum did on piano, or the influence that John Coltrane had on generations of tenor saxophonists. He has a unique perspective. He doesn't play lines, and he doesn't play chords; he sculpts and brushes intervals. It's completely different from anything that's been done before.

This album ostensibly shows Frisell in two different settings; the West Coast band explores more folksy tunes in extended treatment, whereas the East Coast band hits shorter versions of several standards. The truth is, regardless of setting: Frisell is Frisell. His voice is unmistakable. I've heard him play bebop, bluegrass, and standards in duo; and while some guys sound totally different depending where or what they're playing, Frisell is always Frisell.

I've heard comments questioning whether Frisell qualifies as jazz. It's certainly true that his music has deep roots in both rock, and country and western. If you're looking for an entrance to jazz from a rock-and-roll background, Frisell would be a good start. Most of his records bear little or no resemblance to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis. But like I said, I don't find it useful to assess him as a musician. Whatever genre he's playing, I think he unquestionably warrants mention alongside the greatest American artists.

People have been saying this is Frisell's best album. I think it's probably more accurate to say this album best fit what people expected to hear. His previous records have consistently surprised critics with odd angles or new instrumentations; this time, he stripped it down to a conventional trio and recorded relatively simple fare. There are no surprises. I wouldn't want to rate this album in contrast with Nashville or Have a Little Faith; but I certainly agree, it's among his best work. Despite my ardor, he's recorded plenty of music that I wouldn't recommend for many people — but I can't imagine anyone not liking this album.

If you download East/West from the iTunes Music Store, you'll get two bonus tracks: "Big Shoe" featuring the West Coast trio, and a cover of Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now Is Love" played by the East Coast trio. The CD package doesn't include any liner notes, so you may as well buy the digital version.

Disc One: West: I Heard It Through the Grapevine; Blues for Los Angeles; Shenandoah; Boubacar; Pipe Down; A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.
Personnel: Bill Frisell, electric guitar, loops; Viktor Krauss, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums.
Disc Two: East: My Man's Gone Now; The Days of Wine and Roses; You Can Run; Ron Carter; Interlude; Goodnight Irene; The Vanguard; People; Crazy; Tennessee Flat Top Box.
Personnel: Bill Frisell, electric and acoustic guitars, loops; Tony Scherr, bass, acoustic guitar; Kenny Wollesen, drums, percussion.


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