Bill Frisell: Bend
Ever wonder what Johnny Cash's backup group the Tennessee Two might have sounded like jamming on a tango? You might get an idea from the title track of guitarist Bill Frisell's Gone, Just Like a Train, an album that features the jazz deconstructionist in a bare-bones trio setting with Nashville session man Viktor Krauss on bass and studio rocker Jim Keltner on drums. A country lament that ends up as a tango is just one of the record's surprises, though maybe it's not so surprising from Frisell, a forthright eclectic whose ventures into music other than jazz never smack of pretension or compromise.
In one sense, Gone, Just Like a Train picks up where last year's Nashville left off. Absent this time, however, are the dobros and mandolins that seemed a little superfluous anyway, given the healthy twang of Frisell's guitar. Unlike its predecessor, the new record isn't a genre album so much as a genre-bender. Part of what makes Frisell perhaps the most innovative figure in jazz right now, as well as one of the most readily identifiable, is his ability to mix and match without being a chameleon. One of the tunes here, "Egg Radio," is a semi-reggae; the one right before it, "Nature's Symphony," begins with dollops of Hawaiian vibrato. Yet even a listener unfamiliar with Frisell would have no trouble identifying these tracks a the work of the same guitarist, one who claims your attention immediately with his combination of lyricism and power.
Frisell's trademark as a soloist has always been using feedback and distortion to introspective ends. Without sacrificing his musical identity, he plays a little more forcefully here, thanks in part to the goading of his sidemen. A key to the album's success is the quickness of Keltner's responses to Frisell; the drummer's spry, broken time-keeping in "Lookout for Hope" offers ample testimony to his jazz chops. And in the opening "Blues for Los Angeles" and elsewhere, the rumble of Krauss's bass puts Frisell in touch with this inner Link Wray.
Gone, Just Like a Train is going to be filed under jazz, and it belongs there despite its missed pedigree. But its appeal is wider than that of most jazz records. Like all of Bill Frisell's work, it belongs in your collection whether your idea off a great guitarist is George Van Eps or Jimi Hendrix, Alfred Apaka or John Fahey.