(Okeh 8883717382. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)
Big Sur, on California’s Highway One, between San Luis Obispo and Monterey, has a particular place in American culture. It represents a retreat, the antithesis of the seething metropolis. Henry Miller lived there for many years, and once wrote: “Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”
Half a century after Miller moved on, the area has been spared the ravages of development, and still remains relatively unspoilt. Bill Frisell availed himself of an opportunity offered to him by the Big Sur Land Trust to spend time quietly, alone, at their isolated Glen Deven Ranch, to settle down and to write a composition, for a first performance at the 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival. What emerged from this period is a fascinating nineteen-piece suite. The basic thematic material can often be disarmingly simple, but the whole work – and I would argue that it needs to be seen as an integral composition – is a fascinating, constantly shifting kaleidoscope.
The quintet performing it consists of three string players Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Hank Roberts (cello) plus Rudy Royston (drums), and Frisell himself. They perform an ambitiously interlinked and intertwined work, in which Frisell often follows Paul Klee’s simple maxim of “taking a line for a walk,” or – once two parts get going – sets up what Boulez calls “a dog going for a walk around its owner”.
The core vibe of the album is spacious, mesmerically slow, often quiet. The strings play with featherlight bowing, mostly vibrato-less. A simple phrase is stated, absorbed, inevitably repeated. In one piece I counted the same falling melodic line within a fifth occuring no fewer than forty-one times.
Sometimes Frisell’s writing lets the string writing turn from homely apple-pie to deliberately, knowingly sour. As the title track Big Sur progresses, the semitone clashes really start to scrunch, in tantalisingly repeated slo-mo. Gather Good Things has the two upper strings starting unaccompanied, in a world very close to that of the simple Pillow Dances and Wedding Songs of Bartok’s 44 duos for two violins. Then Royston enters, and it turns into a stand-to-attention what-are-we-fighting-for march which could be by Hanns Eisler.
That crisply insistent drumming from Rudy Royston can give a whole range of moods and colours. The gentle dance rhythm of On the Lookout gets ideal ‘alt. country’ propulsion from his rocky backbeat. In Cry Alone, he keeps the slow three going, often with a shimmering cymbal, and with an irregular deep heartbeat from the bass drum.
The Animals, for strings alone, has Roberts progressively slowing the music down with a beguilinging soft single-note cello drone. The final track Far Away has it all: disarmingly simple to start, but developing an immersive cats cradle of counterpoint before returning to calm and innocence, as if a retreat back to rural simplicity can blank out all memory of the sensory overload of the city.
Frisell’s compositional language is confident, personal, heterogeneous, yet clearly all of a piece. It might be best to treat Big Sur like a good Pinot Noir from Bernardus in Carmel, and certainly not attempt – yet – to declare it a vintage, or indeed a masterpiece. But lay it down, keep it in your cellar. The subtleties and the puzzles of Big Sur will be enjoyed for many years.