Starting on the top, going clockwise: Hank Roberts,
Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell and Rudy Royston.
Portraits by Monica Frisell
* * REVIEWS * *
BY NATE CHINEN / NEW YORK TIMES
“Bill Frisell has had a lot of practice putting high concept into a humble package. Long hailed as one of the most distinctive and original improvising guitarists of our time, he has also earned a reputation for teasing out thematic connections with his music... He has drawn recent, long-form inspiration from the rural portrait photography of Mike Disfarmer and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
Big Sur (OKeh), fits squarely into this portfolio, with a welcome twist. As the title implies, it’s about the rugged sweep of California coastline that runs south of the Monterey Peninsula, with a sound that often courts the majestic, this suite-like work attempts to evoke an experience, a sense of place... The sound of these pieces convincingly suggests a blush of discovery bound by larger purpose... What’s striking about Big Sur is its determined strength of melody, along with its shrewd marshaling of resources. It merges two of Mr. Frisell’s recent bands: his 858 Quartet, essentially a string ensemble, and Beautiful Dreamers, a hardier post-bop trio. So along with its leader, Big Sur features the violist Eyvind Kang, the violinist Jenny Scheinman, the cellist Hank Roberts and the drummer Rudy Royston: musicians with a strong feeling for Mr. Frisell’s language... it’s not an album that hangs on the guitar playing in general, deriving more purpose from chamber-like actions. The big picture is the point, and as usual, credit is due to Lee Townsend, Mr. Frisell’s longtime producer.
But it’s Mr. Frisell’s fingerprints that are all over this music. ‘A Beautiful View’, with its convergence of Copland-esque grandeur and arpeggiated shimmer, could hardly have come from another source. Likewise with ’Going to California’ and its air of noble austerity. And ‘Shacked Up’ is a slow-drag country waltz that milks the half-step dissonance in its melody, as if Bob Wills were tipping his hat to Thelonious Monk... It’s clear, in any case, that Mr. Frisell has been thinking along these lines almost since the beginning. There’s a reason that Jazz at Lincoln Center had him program a series called “Roots of Americana” for its coming season.”
BY PAUL WEIDEMAN / PASATIEMPO - published July 26th, 2013
The Music of Glen Deven Ranch begins with a splendid chord. Then Jenny Scheinman's violin-chirps lead into a big, open, expansive-mood melody. It's the first episode of this 19-song suite commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival and written by guitarist Bill Frisell during a retreat at the Big Sur ranch of the opening tune's title. The song titles describe the place, and the music is a multidimensional tour-de-force, generated by a modest quintet: Frisell and Scheinman with violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts, and drummer Rudy Royston. 'Going to California,' with Royston's rolls and the lumbering mood of the others, sounds an epic account of weary travelers who have had more flats than spares, but it's followed by the cool surf-pop groove of 'The Big One.' A long, pensive violin/viola intro opens into a splashy, sometimes dissonant quintet piece called 'Gather Good Things.' 'Cry Alone' is sad and lovely, driven solemnly by Royston. Another highlight is 'Highway 1.' The band inhabits a beautifully quirky space, summoning a tripster along California's coastal road, besotted with impressions. The strings are just marvelous. The suite is an amazing testament to how a place can coax so much from a musical genius. Frisell, confronted by the Big Sur environment, 'filled up pages and pages,' he said. 'The music just kept coming.' We're glad.
Like Kerouac in his fire tower, last year Bill Frisell headed off alone to the mountain retreat of the Glen Deven Ranch to see what he could see '“ internally and externally. The offer of 10 solitary days in one of our most majestic locales came from a Monterey Jazz Festival commission for new work that was to celebrate Big Sur's breathtaking blend of earth and ocean. Sometimes the muse is sparked by isolation, and the 19 pieces resulting from the guitarist's stay are some of his most fetching music ever, by turns forlorn, giddy, stately, spiritual, and frolicsome.
The band Frisell built to deliver these nuggets combines his 858 Quartet and Beautiful Dreamers trio '“ four string players and a drummer. Together they stress their skills at establishing moods in a matter of moments. Plucking and bowing a circular pattern on 'Hawks,' violinist Jenny Scheinman, cellist Hank Roberts, and violist Eyvind Kang manage to conjure the swooping and darting of a sky dance; birds of prey as ballerinas. Frisell's instrument adds shimmer, Rudy Royston's traps provide punch. As a cinematic event, it's irresistible. 'Somewhere' could be the opposite - an examination of self just as much as it is a reflection of region. Twang guitar, luminous strings, wavy high-hat. The process of introspection captured in sound.
It's perfect Frisell logic to hang ten in the middle of a pastoral outing. 'The Big One' finds him with his binoculars out, checking the surfers across the Coast Highway. A bastardization of 'Wipe Out' and the Beach Boys' 'Don't Back Down,' it injects pop energy into the folksy song cycle.
That's the way it should be, of course. From exotic fauna to unique animal life to the mysteries of the Pacific, the coastal wilderness is an exalted area with myriad personality traits. Somewhere around my twentieth spin the program started to remind me of the Nutcracker Suite '“ each track quickly establishing a resonant identity. Whether it's the sunset sentiment of 'We All Love Neil Young' or the echoes of Nino Rota in the title cut, each makes its mark as an earworm. Frisell has done for Big Sur what Ellington did for Harlem '“ celebrated its pluralism and revealed the poetry of its essence.
Throughout his career, Bill Frisell has captured moments, places and themes as one of the most personal and profound storytellers to ever play guitar. On 1992's Have A Little Faith, he presented a sweeping masterpiece of American music from Aaron Copland to Bob Dylan to John Hiatt. In 1997, Frisell offered Nashville, perhaps the best recording about country music that wasn't a country-music album. In 2011, he delivered a love letter to the music of John Lennon on All We Are Saying. And now on Big Sur, his first recording for the newly rekindled OKeh label, Frisell captures the majesty and power of Northern California's rugged coastal terrain. The 19 tracks on Big Sur were commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2012. Along with the commission came a residency at Glen Deven Ranch, an 860-acre stretch that was bequeathed to the Big Sur Land Trust. Frisell used the time to truly get inside the feel of Big Sur and the rhythms of this landscape, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Santa Lucia Mountains. Frisell is joined by violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston, giving Big Sur a sense of grand Americana with classical overtones. The album's opening track, 'The Music Of Glen Deven Ranch,' has a loping sensibility, creating a thoughtful heartbeat for the music to come. 'The Big One' offers Frisell's take on surf guitar backed by Royston's rockin' backbeat, and somewhere Dick Dale is smiling. On 'Highway 1' you can feel Frisell's slightly ominous twists and turns along this famous serpentine thoroughfare. 'Song For Lana Weeks' is a lovely ballad dedicated to the director of community stewardship for the Big Sur Trust. Throughout the set, Frisell and company display an amazing ability to paint sound-portraits that let listeners almost see what they are hearing. 'Hawks' sweeps and soars. 'Gather Good Things' conveys the pride of a good day's work. On 'Cry Alone,' you can almost see someone looking over the Pacific Ocean, with Royston's well-placed cymbal crashes ushering in waves against the shore. 'A Beautiful View' is a beautiful listening experience. And 'We All Love Neil Young' is one minute and 40 seconds of Frisell and Scheinman saying just that on their instruments. (The melody here later comes back to inform 'Lana Weeks.') Big Sur is more than just a musical recording. It's a sonic novel'”instrumental storytelling of the highest caliber delivered by an amazing storyteller. It's Bill Frisell at his best.
Most, if not all, musicians value the relationships'”both musical and friendship'”that they build over the years, but few are as loyal as guitarist Bill Frisell. One look at his various releases over the past couple of decades and it becomes instantly clear that, once he has established a successful working and personal relationship with another musician, he rarely ever calls on anyone else. With the exception of Rudy Royston'”who, since first collaborating with the guitarist in 2007, has regularly split the drum stool with Kenny Wollesen'”every member of the group on Big Sur has been Frisell's sole choice on their instruments. That degree of loyalty also has a lot to do with trust, something that all musicians need , but in particular for Frisell, whose music demands a kind of unspoken confidence in everyone's ability to not just contribute individually, but to come together as a whole far great than the sum of its parts.
Big Sur'”Frisell's debut for Sony's restarted OKeh imprint and the guitarist's return to a major label after spending a couple years on the independent Savoy Jazz'”brings together two of his groups, the trio responsible for Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz, 2010) and his longstanding 858 Quartet, last heard on Sign of Life (Savoy Jazz, 2011). With violist Eyvind Kang (and, of course, Frisell) the connecting thread between the two groups, what Big Sur is, then, is a string quartet (with Frisell replacing one of the violins) with a stronger pulse.
858 has, of course, always been able to shape its own rhythms, as it most assuredly did at its 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival performance, but with the addition of Royston, it allows the music of Big Sur to unfold with an even stronger sense of groove...rocking out, even, as it does on "A Good Spot" and "The Big One," a riff-driven blues with a go-go beat that evokes images of the 1960s and the importance of the California area of Big Sur that, with its long stretches of surf-ready coastline, became an important focal point of inspiration for not just rock (The Beach Boys and, more recently, Death Can for Cuties), jazz (Charles Lloyd and classical (John Adams) music, but an important epicenter for photographers like Ansel Adams and writers like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.
Frisell's 65-minute suite was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival'”the absolutely appropriate source, situated, as it is, just north of Big Sur's largely unpopulated 90-mile stretch of coastline. Largely composed during a 10-day stay at Big Sur's Glen Deven Ranch and later rehearsed there by the entire quintet'”Frisell paying tribute on the opening "The Music of Glen Deven Ranch," which feels almost like an overture to a suite cinematic in scope and evocative of this unique place in the world'”it was a rare opportunity for Frisell, who seems to almost always be on the road or busy with a recording, to have some real down time to write.
The result is a work that somehow manages to evoke not just the part of the country which is its inspiration, but American music as a whole. There are, with Frisell now in his fourth decade as a recording artist, plenty of others informed by the humble guitarist's gentle yet, at times oblique lyricism, his ability to play even the simplest triad-based chord without losing his voice, and his unmistakable idiosyncrasies that render repeated readings of popular cover songs like Hank Williams, Sr.'s "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" utterly personal. But as much as certain Frisellian signatures have been seconded by others, he remains a guitarist often imitated but never duplicated.
With Royston driving the group with a stronger pulse'”even on the more balladic tracks like "Song for Lana Works," featuring cellist Hank Roberts, or "Going to California," with Frisell's layers of overdriven, tremolo'd and ever-sweet clean tone at the fore'”Big Sur provides Frisell's 858 Quartet to be stronger and more immediate. And if Frisell's guitar remains unifying throughout, so, too, is the entire group's approach'”a constantly evolving one that, over the past several years and numerous permutations and combinations, largely supplants individualism with the mitochondria-leveled symbiotic synergism that defines Big Sur and demonstrates just how, with the seemingly mere addition of one musician in Royston, the collective multilateralism is significantly altered.
That's not to say everyone doesn't get the chance to shine; only that it's less about creating a context for soloing and more about an instrumental mix that's constantly and organically shifting, so that Kang and violinist Jenny Scheinman interweave over Frisell and Roberts' pedal tone on the harmonically static, near-Celtic traditionalism of "The Animals," while cellist Hank Roberts rises to the top on the ethereal "Big Sur," doubling Frisell's serpentine melody while Scheinman and Kang's ascending and descending harmonies provide a gentle, constantly shifting foundation.
There are numerous homages throughout Big Sur'”some direct, like the folkloric "We All Love Neil Young," a duet for Frisell and Kang; others more implicit, like the surf rock-inspired "The Big One" and more harmonically recondite "Highway 1," where Frisell's quirkier side comes forward." Together, Big Sur is an album that, as with other thematically conceptualized Frisell recordings like Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009) and History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008)'”an album that also expanded the 858 Quartet but, in that case, with a much larger configuration'”is best absorbed in its entirety rather than as individual tracks.
Is it jazz? Hard to say. Does it matter? Not one whit. There's no doubt that the improvisational spirit of jazz imbues and informs Big Sur and its reliance on interpreting Frisell's all-original set of 19 miniatures (only one cracking the five minute mark, more than half coming in under four). Instead, Big Sur represents Frisell's ongoing consolidation and confluence of a growing number of touchstones and, after his focus on the music of John Lennon on All We Are Saying (Savoy Jazz, 2011) and subsequent touring in 2012 (including a transcendent Ottawa performance), is a superb and most welcome return to not just Frisell the wondrous guitarist, but Frisell the inimitable composer.
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* Interview with Bill Frisell about "Big Sur" conducted by Brian Robbins below. Jam Bands.com - Published 6/21/13
As big, bold, quirky, and lovely as its namesake (and birthplace) Bill Frisell's new Big Sur album is destined to be a classic in the guitarist's catalog. Frisell has made a career out of defying musical boundaries and shrugging off genre labels; you'll most likely find his albums under 'jazz,' but know that this man can play the blues, pick the grass, twang the boards off the side of the barn, and jam with the trippiest of them. Frisell's Big Sur '“ featuring his new 'Big Sur Quartet': violinist Jenny Sheinman; cellist Hank Roberts; Eyvind Kang on viola; and drummer Rudy Royston '“ is the result of a commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival, which landed Frisell a residency at the 860-acre Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, CA. Just the man, a guitar, and his notebooks '“ in a setting that offered beauty, solitude, and inspiration. We talked with Bill about the experience of having complete freedom to be and to create '“ with the occasional wild animal thrown into the mix.
Brian Robbins: Bill, when I first heard about this project '“ before I actually heard the album '“ I thought you might be doing another project like the one based on Hunter Thompson's 'The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved' article.
BF: Oh, yeah '¦ (laughs)
Which concerned me, because as beautiful as Kerouac's Big Sur is, there's some serious darkness there '¦
BF: Oh, I know '“ I was actually reading it while I was up at Big Sur. It was incredible. Kerouac's description of his arrival at Big Sur at the beginning of the book was sort of an exaggeration of my own. He was going up there to clean himself up from drinking or whatever; I was going to clean up my brain from '¦ you know '¦ all the chaos around me.But he describes getting there late at night '“ he was walking from Monterey or wherever he was coming from '“ and describes this ravine and he runs into a donkey and all this stuff happens. When I went there, it was in the night '“ the flight was cancelled and I was really late '“ and I'm driving up this narrow, dark road and I don't know where I'm going.It was kind of amazing: he just nailed the description. Also, there's this sort of darker thing about it, too; it's spectacularly beautiful and spacious '¦ but there's this underbelly to it, at the same time.
Of all the songs on the album, if I was going to pick one that could be a soundtrack to the Kerouac book, I guess it would be the title track. It seems to capture some of that tension and darkness '¦ and the beauty.
That's cool. Once I got there and started writing the music, things kind of '¦ (laughs) '¦ I just sort of entered into the music. But being there gave me the space in my head to just write. I wasn't trying to really capture some picture or anything '“ I was just sort of '¦ writing music.The very last thing I always do are the titles; I go back and listen to the stuff and say, 'Well, this must remind me of something '¦' (laughter) It's always like that '“ the title is sort of an afterthought.
That's interesting. How much of the music do you think was generated by being at Big Sur, rather than just a result of being isolated like that?
There was this double thing of incredible space and beauty around me, which '“ of course '“ affected me, as you say. But even more important was the space in my own mind to just be with myself. That is so rare these days; I didn't know what time it was; there was no internet; no phone; no TV '“ none of that stuff. It was just basic follow-through of whatever. There was no pressure at all.And even though I was writing the music for the Monterey Jazz Festival '“ that's where we played the music '“ it was so far into the future that I didn't feel that deadline thing either.
You had a completely empty canvas to work with.
Exactly. I've never had an experience quite like that.
Had the Monterey Jazz Festival done anything like that previously? I know they'd commissioned pieces, certainly, but had they set someone up in an environment like that to write?
I think I might've been the guinea pig for that. (laughter) I think they'd been talking about doing it for a while. There's one song on the album called 'Song for Lana Weeks' and she's the woman who works for the Big Sur Land Trust. Lana and Tim Jackson, who's the Monterey Jazz Festival's Artistic Director, have been thinking about this for quite a while. Some people wouldn't want to go up there and be all by themselves, you know? So they had to find somebody. Tim knew me '“ and knew me well enough to know that I might be interested '¦ and I definitely was.
Would you go back?
Yeah '¦ for sure! It was like paradise for me.
So, no cellphone; no laptop; no TV. The big question is, what did you take for instruments?
The first time I went '“ I went twice '“ was in April of last year for 10 days. And I just had a Collings guitar with me. I always have just one instrument with me at a time. Someday '“ when I grow up (laughter) '“ I'll have roadies and all that stuff. But whatever I can carry with me is what I have.
So, a Collings acoustic?
No, actually it's a semi-hollowbody electric that's kind of like a 335 Gibson. I think they call it an I-35.
Oh, sure '“ I have a Collings mandolin, which is a much better instrument than I'll ever be a player.
It's beautiful.Oh, they're just incredible, aren't they? I have a Collings dreadnought, too '“ it's an amazing instrument.
So you arrived at Big Sur during the night and took in your surroundings the next morning. How long was it before the music showed up; before you started to write?
Well '¦ I think right away. It's hard to say. I'd just walk around and all day I'd be writing something. It's almost like drawing or '¦ or '¦
Exactly. So I'd walk '“ even without my guitar '“ out on these trails with a little notebook and try to write down melodies. There were tons of stuff; what ended up on the record or what we did for the gig is just a small part of it. I should go through those notebooks more to see what else is in there.
Maybe there'll be a Big Sur Volume II
'¦ Could be! (laughs) But that's kind of the way I write. I accumulate all the little bits; all the raw stuff '¦ and then I go back and try to refine it. There's not even that much different material on the album, really. There are pieces that are related to each other; or even the same piece played in a different way.
I remember thinking 'A Good Spot' and 'A Beautiful View' were variations on the same theme '¦ and hearing quotes of various pieces tucked in here and there. It really gives the album a true 'suite' feel. I can easily imagine the individual tracks just flowing into each other, if you chose to present them in that manner.
Oh, yeah. In a few weeks we're going to be touring in Europe and I'm really excited about that. I'm sure the music is going to evolve and change as we play it. We really just did the one gig in Monterey and then we did the record '“ the music is really still in the early stages.
Am I right that you returned to Glen Deven with the quartet?
Yeah '“ right before the Monterey performance. That was cool: they could see what I was thinking about. It was a really great way to rehearse for the gig, because instead of just having the notes on the piece of paper, we all had that same experience of being there.
How structured were the arrangements when you presented the songs to those folks?
That's the thing: with this band, it's kind of amazing. Everybody's looking at the same part '“ sometimes there could be three or four harmony parts or whatever '“ but they're very free to choose what they want to do. They're making these spontaneous orchestration decisions really quickly on their own. Sometimes everybody will be playing the same thing '¦ or someone will switch to a different part '¦ or they'll turn it around backwards '¦ and that's what I love about this band. I've known everybody for so long and we don't have to figure it out '¦ it's not written out as if it was for the 'Such-and-such String Quartet' (laughter) where everything has to be a certain way.
I wanted to ask you about Lee Townsend, who produced the album. With a project such as this, it seems to me that a producer has to walk a fine line between maintaining a certain level of control and letting things happen organically.
That's right. Lee and I have done so many records together '¦ and he knows me well enough that from project to project he'll change his approach, depending on what the project is. Like when we did the Floratone records together, Lee was really, really deep into actually affecting the whole structure of the music '“ compositionally and every kind of way. With something like this, it's more just about the vibe; about trying to make it comfortable for the musicians. Lee knows when to just let it go '¦ when to let it happen.
There are some great producers in the world, but you know in a heartbeat that an album is one of theirs, because they slap their trademark sound all over it. But that's cool to hear that about Lee '“ it's as if he's improvising along with the rest of you.
That's true. And Adam MuÃ±oz did an amazing job of recording and mixing, as well. He always does.
How about if we look at a few specific songs on the album? Hopefully, I'll remember them! (laughter) Fair enough! 'Sing Together Like A Family' made me smile. There's a hybrid Appalachian fiddle tune roaming around in the background.
On that one, I noticed after we recorded it '“ and this is one of the things that really excites me about this band '“ the whole intonation and rhythmic thing that we have together. The music gets into this unexplainable place where everybody is always making these tiny adjustments in tune with each other or in time with each other. Even if we're playing the exact same thing, there's a sound that starts happening like a '¦ a '¦ a family that sings together! (laughter) I guess that's what I was thinking about.
There you go.
So even if the music or the parts are set in a certain way, there's something else that starts happening '¦ and everybody starts adjusting to each other. It's really exciting.
I think that's the key to good formation flying.
Yeah, yeah '“ exactly! That's an amazing way to describe it '¦ I'm going to use that. That'll be another title. (laughter)
I'm deeply honored.
But it's perfect: if you turn the wrong way '“
You take out everybody!
'Going To California' has this grand and stately feel to it; but there's also this ominous thread that runs through the song, as well. Was there some nervousness on your part when you decided you were going to California to stay at Big Sur?
Well, maybe not before the trip '“ but that first morning I woke up and said, 'Wow '“ this is the most awesome, extraordinary place I've ever seen!' I felt so relaxed; just walking around and taking it all in. I ran into the caretaker who lives down the road. He's an amazing guy; he's lived there for years and years and knows every inch of the land. We talked for a hour and at the end he says, 'Actually if you're going to go down that trail there, I'd better get you a stick '“ there are mountain lions here'¦' And I'm like, 'What?' (laughter) He says, 'Don't worry,' but he's just sort of planted this little seed of this '¦ this '¦ other thing '“ the dark side. (laughter) So after that, every time I went out, I had this little feeling of being completely by myself, walking down these trails, and thinking something's going to jump out at me. (laughs) Or one night there was this incredible storm '“ thunder and lightning and wind '“ and the electricity went out and it felt like the house was going to blow away. I mean, there's stuff there that's '¦ scary, really. It's not like being in a dark alley in New York in the middle of the night, or whatever '“ it's a different sort of scary.
I hear you. And at the same time, we have a song like 'The Big One', which is one big, sunshiny smile. It seems like there had to be at least one let-it-fly surf tune birthed from being in that setting. One of the things that makes that song so neat is the fact that you don't often get to hear a viola, a cello, and a violin play surf music.
Yeah that was cool. (laughs) I wrote that tune when I was at Big Sur and I started playing it at rehearsal almost as a joke, thinking 'We can't really play this '¦' But then everybody was like, 'Oh no, we've got to play that!' (laughter) I wasn't even sure that I was going to put it on the record, actually. But it does make sense with the whole California thing.
'Cry Alone' is a beautiful piece, but it feels so personal that it's almost embarrassing. It's like looking over your shoulder while you're writing in a journal.
Well '¦ (laughs) Thanks!
I just hope you had no reason to actually cry alone.
No, no! (laughter)
And then there's 'We All Love Neil Young' '“ which we all do, of course '¦ but what was the inspiration for that?
I don't know '¦ (laughter) Neil lives not too far from there. I've never seen where he lives or anything, but I've read books about his ranch and all that. We'd always be talking about 'Neil this' or 'Neil that' and somehow that song just '¦ I don't know '“ it made me think of him.
We talked about a string section playing surf music '“ then they turn around and launch into the blues of 'Shacked Up'.
Yeah '“ that was so great to do that.
We mentioned Lana Weeks earlier, who has a song named for her. We should probably also mention Jim Cox, who 'Walking Stick' is dedicated to.
Jim is the caretaker guy I was telling you about. He carved me a walking stick out of a branch to carry around with me. It was cool.
To fend off the mountain lions. Yeah, yeah '“ 'I'll take care of '˜em' '¦ with my stick. (laughter)
Bill, thanks so much for taking the time to do this today. I've really enjoyed listening to Big Sur '“ and equally enjoyed talking with you about it.
Thank you '“ this was fun. And thank you so much for listening; I appreciate it.
MONTREAL - Bill Frisell is on a roll. In the last 2Â½ years, the perennial poll-winning guitarist has released no less than 10 albums. They're wildly diverse in scope, theme and genre, yet they all bear his unmistakable tone and his supremely open-minded esthetic and imagination. Nowhere does he spread himself thin. He may well be the most creative and eclectic musician around.
That last sentence may seem presumptuous, but the proof is in the pudding. There is his tender tribute to the songs of John Lennon (All We Are Saying); a duet with Brazilian singer Vinicius Cantuaria (Lagrimas Mexicanas); a trio set of sweetly haunting John Zorn tunes (The Mysteries); two solo recordings (Silent Comedy, wacked out in two hours, and the intensely lyrical Solos: The Jazz Sessions); two quartets (Enfants Terribles, with bebop legend Lee Konitz, and Sign of Life, with his string group), and his latest, the impressionistic Big Sur, commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival.
'It's natural that the music is always happening,' Frisell said over the phone recently. 'I've been really lucky to just be playing all the time, but what's unusual is that I've been super-lucky in having these opportunities to document it with recordings '” and I know I've been really lucky in having been supported (by record labels) for so many years (and) I don't want to take it for granted.'
Frisell speaks in a modest, calm, but almost questioning cadence. He tries so hard to be accurate in relating an idea or event that he interrupts himself, starts another sentence, then stops and revises it, until he has shaped a group of words that he hopes answers your question satisfactorily. You can almost hear the gears of his mind working to avoid pat answers.
When I led off by asking if he enters 'an existential state' when performing solo concerts '” as he will on Saturday at the jazz festival '” he replied, 'What does that mean? Let me think. So many things happen '” I mean, it's been such a challenge for me to play by myself. The first time I tried to do it was, boy, 30 years ago or more. My first solo concert, I can't even begin to tell you how traumatic it was. I had prepared what I thought was an hour's worth of music, and there were about three people in the audience, and I was just terrified out of my mind. I looked at my watch and started to play and went through the whole program, and I looked at my watch again and only about five minutes had gone by! I was like, '˜Oh my God, what am I gonna do, stuck up there all by myself?'
'My whole thing with music is so much about interaction. Even if it's just with one other person, you put an idea out and then something comes back and you react to it, so it's been this long struggle or learning experience to get comfortable with not having to feel like you have to fill up every inch of that space. When you're alone, you put the idea out into the air, and in the beginning I was in a panic to think of something else right away '” just the silence was deafening. Now I'm actually beginning to enjoy it. I can actually start to play real music while I'm by myself, maybe because I'm more sensitive that there's something going on with the audience.'
Does Frisell start with his mind as a blank slate, as Keith Jarrett has described solo performances? And is he ever afraid of simply noodling?
'I definitely try to be not thinking. Sometimes I'll think of certain songs that I'll maybe want to play, but even having that much of a preconception seems to get in the way. I totally understand what Keith is talking about, you know, to go out there and just really give myself over to that moment. I have a lifetime of playing songs or noise or whatever I play, and if I really trust that, then that's what seems best.
'As for noodling, it seems that if I've made some preconceived plan which takes me away from really entering into the music, then sometimes that feels more like (noodling). Oh, I don't know '” it's hard talking about this stuff, because whenever I think of one statement, I can think of something that contradicts it completely, so you have to take everything with a little grain of salt.'
The territory he traverses can be surmised through his album titles: History, Mystery '¦ Blues Dream '¦ Gone, Just Like a Train '¦ Unspeakable '¦ Beautiful Dreamers '¦ Good Dog, Happy Man '¦ Ghost Town '¦ The Willies. Among his notable groups were Naked City, a collaboration with the Zorn crew that virtually defined the word 'edgy' (its complete works are collected in a five-CD box '” one for the ages), and his unnamed trio with sax king Joe Lovano and the late drumming legend Paul Motian. Then there are more than 150 albums as a sideman.
Frisell, born in 1951, puts his music through all kinds of permutations '” fuzz, feedback, echo, country twang with a modernist lilt, traditional jazz that's not trad, avant-garde tinges, memory jogs into the unknown '” to arrive at a simply stated version of that old folk standard Shenandoah. Out of seeming chaos comes a mood and a feeling that is achingly familiar, yet enrobed by irresistible mystery.
'Learning a new song,' he explains, 'sometimes it takes a long time for it to sink down deep enough for it to come out that way. That's probably why a lot of the songs I play, I've been playing them for a long time '” just so they feel like they're part of my bloodstream, I guess.'
Frisell plays with an effects box at his feet and, unlike many players who use gadgets (and sound like gadgets), it feels like part of his personae.
'I think people put too much weight on what kind of strings you use or what kind of guitar, what kind of amp, what kind of effect. I think the real test is what's in your imagination. I also like to just mess around and experiment with whatever sounds I can find, but it comes more from hearing the sound that I can't quite reach in my imagination, then trying to force it out of the instrument itself. Like I'll listen to a Stravinsky piece and say, '˜Oh man, I wish I could get the sound of the whole orchestra playing just one note.' You don't ever get there, but you try to force it out somehow."
On the DVD Solos, Frisell says: 'I used to equate complexity with better music. How could you say that Segovia is more advanced than Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix or Wes Montgomery? I mean, for me there's no higher or lower. It just depends what you can bring to it or what your imagination can come up with.'
This year's Silent Comedy, which reminds me of a box of chocolates in which each piece imparts a different flavour, 'was so great for me to do because I didn't prepare or think at all. I just walked in and the whole album '” the order, the titles '” was completely done within a couple hours. John (Zorn) was the audience helping me. I really wanted to do something where I wasn't obsessing over every little thing.'
Frisell performed his latest opus, Big Sur '” released just last week '” at last year's Monterey Jazz Festival.
'The incredible part of it was that they set me up to stay on this ranch in Big Sur, and that's where I wrote all the music, completely alone in this incredible environment. I didn't have a phone or a television '” I didn't even know what time it was. I just sat there completely alone in what for me was the wilderness.
'It wasn't that long ago when I thought the record industry is just crumbling, and I wasn't really thinking (of doing an album).' Then the newly revived classic label Okeh, which released Big Sur, 'just showed up right when I was working on the music. I know it's unusually lucky.'
That kind of humility extends naturally toward Frisell's approach to the possibilities of sound. Which makes us 'unusually lucky' to listen to the results.
The progenitor of Americana jazz makes music that's most directly inspired by a scenic crown jewel of Americana itself.
Long known to make beautifully pastoral music that's inspired by many but delineative of no one, Bill Frisell's long twisted music journey has often reflected the artist's own benign mannerisms and the quest for a gorgeous melodic development, with no prejudice to how old or new it sounds. But a commission from the Monterrey Jazz Festival afforded the iconic guitarist rare time for deep reflection and rumination to make the music that ultimately grew out of the ten days he spent amidst a breathtaking piece of nature situated in the middle of California's coast: Big Sur.
When Frisell left solitude at the Glen Deven Ranch at Big Sur, he had nineteen new songs that wound up on the album recorded a short time later up the road in Berkeley. When he returned to the place with his band '” the newly formed Bug Sur Quintet '” Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Hank Roberts (cello) and Rudy Royston (drums) shaped these products of Frisell's communion with nature into that distinctive Bill Frisell sound, borrowing from folk, jazz, rock, chamber music and Appalachia. None of these band members are new to Frisell's world (Roberts first appeared on 1987'²s Lookout For Hope), but the grouping is unique, a merger of his 858 Quartet and his Beautiful Dreamers trio, of which Kang plays in both. Trusted producer Lee Townsend again helms the producer's booth, completing the circle of familiarity that virtually ensures continuity with prior works'¦think of it as part of a grouping of certain Frisell records that also includes recent entries Sign of Life and Beautiful Dreamers, and much earlier excursions into his folky side like Gone, Just Like a Train.
Like the scenery he enjoyed at the ranch, there's an embracing airiness to the music with an absence of the haunted quality that was part and parcel to Frisell's last Americana-themed project, Disfarmer. With only one song running over five minutes and six under three, the compositions often limit themselves to simple constructions with few changes; Frisell plausibly could have created some of these strains intentionally uncomplicated and broad enough for his band to add their own flavor to the proceedings.
'A Beautiful View' is illustrative: over a simple vamp, everyone contributes in a unique way such that everyone stands out, but combined it's contrapuntal bliss. Other songs have more complex underpinnings but in discreet ways: 'Gather Good Things' consists of more of those cleverly interacting harmonies among Scheinman, Kang and Roberts but spanning across a shifting melody. 'Going To California' has a majesty not just in the way the song glides unhurriedly but deliberately through its stately chord changes, but also in how the strings handle the melody, Frisell provides harmonic counterpoints, and Royston supplies the emotion.
Still, it's a very together band; Frisell had the Carter Family in mind when he came up with 'Sing Together Like A Family,' and in a traditional country-folk way, the quintet conveys that same vibe of togetherness. But that symmetry continues right into the syncopated funk of the too-brief 'A Good Spot'.
There's not a whole lot of soloing or Frisell's notorious excursions to the edge, but for those who dig that side of him, he does bare a little teeth against a bluegrass backdrop on 'Hawks.' Frisell lets his hair down again, but in a distinctly California way on the backbeat driven, beach rock of 'The Big One' and the presence of three orchestral stringed instruments does nothing to water down that feel. The same goes for 'Highway 1,' where Royston's swampy rock pace is exploited by everyone else, conjuring up something of a chamber version of the Beatles' 'Come Together.'
Thus, Big Sur introduces no new ideas from Bill Frisell, but does a pretty good job in amplifying and refining some old ones, and he almost always thrives when given a theme to build music around. The scenery has worked for Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Charles Lloyd and Death Cab For Cutie, so why not a guy whose sensibilities were already positioned in that general area?
It's music conceived by a clear mind, which in turn, can be ideal for clearing other people's minds.
The 90 miles of Central California coastline known as Big Sur, midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, extending inland to the abruptly rising Santa Lucia Mountains, has inspired writings by Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, photographs by Ansel Adams and music from sources as varied as John Adams and the Beach Boys. When guitarist Bill Frisell arrived at Glen Deven Ranch there in April 2012, in the dark of night, he could scarcely sense the beauty of the 860-acre property bequeathed to the Big Sur Land Trust in 2001.
Redferns via Getty Images
Bill Frisell's latest album is 'Big Sur.'
"When morning came, it blew my mind," he said in an interview. "You're surrounded by redwood forest, and there's a trail that you can walk to the bluff's end, where the land just drops off and you see the whole panorama of the coast and the Pacific Ocean." Mr. Frisell spent 10 days in residence there, composing a suite commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival that led to his latest CD, "Big Sur" (OKeh).
At 62, Mr. Frisell is a towering figure of jazz guitar, having achieved such status largely by evading strict notions of jazz and by confounding expectations of what a guitar can do. He built his reputation gradually, arriving at the mainstream from the outside in. He is a resident artistic director of San Francisco's SFJazz Center and, this fall, will curate Jazz at Lincoln Center's "Roots of Americana" series. He has often been credited with a distinctly American sound, perhaps in reference to the melancholy twang within much of his music, and his knack for melodies that might befit country-and-western tunes.
Stylistically, Mr. Frisell is impossible to pigeonhole. ("I suppose I play the kind of harmonic things Jim Hall would play but with a sound that comes from Jimi Hendrix," he once told the British music magazine The Wire.) His ideas about free-flowing song forms were no doubt influenced by drummer Paul Motian; he played in Motian's trio, alongside tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano for more than 30 years, until Motian's death in 2011.
Mr. Frisell might have at times seemed like a chameleon, equally comfortable playing alongside bassist Ron Carter or dobro player Jerry Douglas, were it not that his own sound and style remained consistent and commanding. His accomplishment has been defined less by range than by the steady refinement of his beguiling voice as both player and composer. Beginning with the 2001 album "Blues Dream," he said, he began favoring simple themes that repeat and combine throughout a recording. That's especially true on two masterly CDs, 2008's "History, Mystery" and 2009's "Disfarmer."
"Big Sur" develops this strategy yet further. Its 19 tracks, most relatively brief, interweave some half-dozen themes, sometimes in stately fashion, others joyously or pleadingly (one, riding a surf-rock beat). "We All Love Neil Young" sounds like a folk tune. "Gather Good Things" is structured like chamber music. "On the Lookout," with its stuttering beats, suggests funk. After a while, these themes overlap and blur, often to mesmerizing effect.
Mr. Frisell has a knack for suggesting multiple parts'”melody, harmony and countermelody'”as he plays. He moves in and around a tune with subtle, sometimes barely perceptible force. "Big Sur" grew from focused isolation. "Yet this music is really about a family sound," he said. The quintet he assembled leans on long-standing relationships'”with cellist Hank Roberts, violist Eyvind Kang, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Rudy Royston. He furthers both the string quartet format he began with 2005's "Richter 858" and the rapport of his trio with Messrs. Kang and Royston.
Mr. Frisell's music here was all composed. "There's no real improvisation," he said. "But it contains all these microscopic adjustments, with the music being pushed around and shifted in a way that can only happen when you've been together for a long time. The suite really took shape when the band joined me at the ranch."
Is there an artist as well-suited to record an album inspired by Big Sur as Bill Frisell? Having spent much of his long career working a fertile seam in the jazz world that shares ground with Americana and folk, Frisell and his often twang-dusted tone seems tailor-made for sweeping vistas and pastoral wonders.
Stemming from a 2012 commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival, 'Big Sur' is the result of Frisell holing himself up in a cabin at the 860-acre Glen Deven Ranch and writing music for wherever this natural muse took him.
Recorded with a blend of the guitarist's most recent projects in the string-laden 858 Quartet and drummer for his Beautiful Dreamers trio Rudy Royston, the resulting 19-track suite approaches a lush, near-orchestral sweep on the strength of violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinman on violin.
At times, parts of Frisell's compositions recall some the rustic grandeur of Aaron Copland, such as on the churning 'Hawks,' while 'Gather Good Things' develops with a more atmospheric bent before yielding to a swirling blend of strings and Frisell's effects-shaded tone. The band dips into a loping sort of surf-rock on 'The Big One,' while other longer pieces such as 'Walking Stick (for Jim Cox)' and 'A Beautiful View' hint more toward Frisell's off-kilter take on Western swing.
It all sounds entirely of Bill Frisell's unique world, yet still like a previously undiscovered land that sounds well worth a visit.
Bill Frisell, '˜Big Sur,' produced by Lee Townsend (OKeh)
Possibly my favorite concert ever (I do NOT write those words lightly) was guitarist Bill Frisell in his valley debut, in August 2011, at PAC3 in Carbondale. Mystical, beautiful, moving, dissonant, melodic, fresh, even humorous '” it had everything. Frisell apparently has similar feelings. That show debuted an unusual combination: string quartet of sorts (violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts, violinist Jenny Scheinman and Frisell) plus drummer Rudy Royston. It was a last-minute decision by Frisell, who originally had thought of playing the gig with two separate combos with overlapping members.
Frisell reassembles the group for 'Big Sur,' and in a three-decade career of highlights, this is another. Frisell's projects have variously been rooted in country or leaned toward jazz's avant-garde, but this one finds a new direction, as Frisell takes on string-oriented chamber music. Frisell moves into the skin of a composer, writing all the tunes (including the rustic 'We All Love Neil Young'), but there seems plenty of room for improvisation from the rest of the group.
If I can't relive that experience in Carbondale, this is as good a substitute as I can imagine.