Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bill Frisell Smashes, Scatters, and Comes Out With His Best Album in More Than Ten Years

I'm going to admit, point blank, that I am of the belief that Bill Frisell can do no wrong. As a sideman, he is one of a small handful of musicians in any idiom that can make any note beautiful; as a leader he has a consistency only matched by Brad Mehldau and his often cohort Paul Motian. So, now that I'm through with all of that praise of Bill Frisell's recent output, let me say this: "History, Mystery" is better in every single way than just about anything he's done as a leader or a sideman at least since 1997's severely underrated "Nashville;" maybe the best since his magnum opus, 1992's "Have a Little Faith." However tempting it is to keep those two albums in mind when buying this, however, those comparisons are pretty useless when it comes to "History, Mystery." It has more in common with the free-wheeling little big band tracks of, say, "Before We Were Born," but even that comparison barely scratches the surface.

"History, Mystery" is just too good, and covers too much stylistic ground, for comparisons to anything in Frisell's or anyone else's discography. The album is designed as a suite for an octet (violin, viola, cello, saxophone and trumpet along with guitar, bass and drums) as opposed to a set of unrelated songs, and each of the two CDs makes up its own clear half of the suite; the first disc is bookended by versions of the ethereal tango "Probability Cloud," while the second is bookended by versions of the ethereal country waltz ("ethereal" is a good word to describe much of this album) "Monroe." In addition, various short themes (two of "Question" and "Answer," a few "Struggle"s, a couple of "Lazy Robinson"s, etc) show up repeatedly throughout the two discs.

Of the lengthier tracks, my personal favorite is a cacophonous version of the old Lee Konitz war-horse "Subconscious-Lee," but my love of Konitz' work of the 50s probably makes me impartial on that front. Everybody plays brilliantly, and the sidemen include Tony Scherr, Kenny Wolleson, and Jenny Scheinman. Greg Tardy, the saxophone player, shines in particular on a stand-out solo on Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." The individual tracks are not so important on this album as the way they fit together, however, and the whole of this album is much greater than the sum of its many brilliant parts; just listen to the way "Probability Cloud" segues into "Probability Cloud Pt 2," or the way the formless "Monroe" finds form in the groove of "Lazy Robinson."

"History, Mystery" has undoubtedly made its way onto my list of favorite Frisell albums, along with "Nashville," "Have A Little Faith," and 2005's "East/West." As opposed to making another trio album (as in "East/West" or "Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian") or reverting back to using country as a springboard for somewhat thought-provoking, yet a little to pleasant jazz (as in "The Willies" or "Good Dog, Happy Man"), Frisell has taken a real risk by releasing a two disc jazz suite for octet, and in doing so has created a brilliant album. I have a feeling that, along with Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic," "History, Mystery" will stand at the end of the year as one of the year's best. The only thing that the two albums have in common is that neither sounds quite like anything else in jazz right now, and while there are clear reference points in some of the artists' earlier work, the two albums exist in their own musical worlds. Highly recommended for anyone interested in guitars, the future of jazz, or just about anything.

Also, please continue to comment! I'm sorry, Dave, I got a little carried away last time; the whole thing about "embarrassing yourself" by posting was more of a joke than anything else. As for my opinion of Eigsti's album, I stand by it; it's not that I don't think he's a great piano player, I just think he needs a little bit more time to develop into a great musician. Next time I think I'll probably post a review of Tom Scott's "Cannon-Reloaded." Or maybe the new Dianne Reeves album. Maybe I'll rant about how ridiculous the Miguel Zenon article in the new Downbeat is. I dunno, there'll be something here though, so check back!

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