Bill Frisell - Sign of Life - Music for 858 Quartet

Bill Frisell's album, Sign of Life was released on Savoy Records.  The 858 Quartet was originally conceived a number of years ago when Frisell was commissioned to compose music inspired by the artist Gerhard Richter's 858 series of paintings which was exhibited by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  The new recording is a result of a composing retreat that Frisell undertook during the fall of 2010 in Vermont.  All of the material was written in the month of October and recorded in November, 2010.  This represents the shortest gestation period of any Frisell recording to date.  Produced by longtime collaborator Lee Townsend and recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California in late 2010, 'Sign of Life' features Frisell on guitar, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola and Hank Roberts on cello.

"Sign of Life finds Frisell exploring chamber-group dynamics and interplay in ways that toggle between composition and improvisation, reverberating soundscapes and spiky minimalism... Owing to Frisell's familiar touch, tone and affection for roots music, a few tunes on Sign of Life should instantly appeal to his Nashville-bred following ... and the arrangements take full advantage of the ensemble's rich sonorities and intuitive level of play."
-  Mike Joyce, Jazz Times

"Frisell in peak form... the band's extemporaneous arrangements deliver intricately worked variations on fiddle and guitar breakdowns and big vista American pastoralism .... The sound sparkles like springwater." - Phil Johnson, The Independent - London

Bill Frisell's Sign of Life (Savoy Jazz) is one of the most gorgeous new albums I've heard in a while. It's in the tradition of his "Americana" albums (Disfarmer; History, Mystery; Ghost Town; Gone, Just Like a Train; This Land), but here he burrows deeper into the roots. There are traces of folk, bluegrass, minimalism, western-blues, as well as certain modes and improvisational cadences of jazz. The ensemble is the 858 Quartet (Frisell on guitar; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Eyvind Kang, viola; Hank Roberts, cello), first formed (and last recorded) five years ago, to accompany a museum exhibition of Gerhard Richter's new paintings, which the German artist called the "858 series."

Frisell composed the new album (all 17 tracks) at the Vermont Studio Center, where his wife, the playful abstract painter Carole d'Inverno, was on a month-long retreat. The liner notes quote John Cage and others on the blessings of silence, of a pause from daily industry, and there is a hushed awe about Sign of Life, an expression of intense calm.  The musicians are top-notch, in fine form, and the sound (produced by Lee Townsend, engineered by Adam Muñoz, mastered by Greg Calbi) is stunningly vivid.  Fred Kaplan, Stereophile.

"The music is transcendent; alternately light and airy, moody and introspecitve."  - Vintage Guitar

The music on Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartet was loosely composed by Frisell, and took shape in group rehearsals. 858's other members include violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, and cellist Hank Roberts. Recorded at Fantasy Studios in San Francisco and produced by Lee Townsend, the 17 selections on this set feel very organic. The album opens with Americana-tinged themes in the two-part "It's a Long Story" that nod to country, folk, and even Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" in its melody. "Old Times" hints at bluegrass, blues, and ragtime, but because of the complex interplay between the four players, reaches far past them into a music that is 858's own. "Friend of Mine" is another two-part tune; that said, where a pastoral theme is suggested in part one, a more mischievous one responds in the second some eight tracks later. Elsewhere, improvised classical motifs, jazz modes, and folk and other roots musics shimmer through these compositions, sometimes simultaneously and often spontaneously.... Sign of Life is a curious, quirky, and deceptively low-key affair that is musically labyrinthine and ambitious; it's full of gorgeous spaces, textures, utterly instinctive interplay, and unexpected delight.  Thom Jurek, All Music Guide

Bill Frisell rarely follows conventional musical pathways. The guitarist has released albums of Americana, world, blues and classical music—all with a jazz edge. Improvisation is at the heart of what Frisell does, magically forming loose ideas into compelling and frequently exigent listening experiences.  Sign of Life, recorded with the virtuosic 858 Quartet (violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts) challenges the perceptions of a classical quartet.  Frisell’s emotive depth and textural layering push the music toward an artier realm bordering on contemporary classical, but with a spatial, earthbound feel.  Elements of Aaron Copeland mix with Marvin Gaye, Eastern rhythms collide with 70's-soundtrack-esque passages and even old-timey traditions make a brief appearance. It's a diverse album that reveals new delights with each spin. - Glenn Burn Silver, Relix

Is this jazz? John Zorn once defined "great Jewish music" as great music by Jews. Sign of Life (beautifully recorded, in a studio) is great music by jazz musicians, so by that standard, it's great jazz. Frisell plays guitar and is joined by his 858 Quartet mates, Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola) and Hank Roberts (cello) It's chamber jazz, with strands of bluegrass and wistful minimalism: gorgeous, witty, and sometimes a bit heartbreaking.  - Fred Kaplan, Slate