Bill Frisell – Music IS
(Okeh Records19075815002. Review by Peter Bacon)
It’s 18 years since the guitarist’s last solo album, Ghost Town (Nonesuch). That album had Frisell playing electric and acoustic guitars, 6-string banjo, loops and bass; for the new one subtract the banjo, and add ukulele and music boxes.
The overall way of working is the same. Bill lays down a little guitar melody and then subtly augments it over the course of its two to six minutes with overlaid guitar, bass, or other plucked strings. But differences have developed over a near two decades. Listen to Ghost Town straight after Music IS and the music seems a little slower in development, a little emptier, taking its time to create atmospheres. The new album is more concise (the track lengths are generally shorter) and while they still have space (uncannily even more space) there are a lot more ideas and a wider array of musical colours packed in.
The 2000 album was mainly Frisell compositions with a Hank Williams, a John McLaughlin and a couple of standards thrown in; Music IS is unadulterated Frisell. Although, of course, Frisell’s music is in another way, thoroughly adulterated, steeped as it is in melodic and harmonic tropes from country music, from Americana folk, from surf guitar rock, through old-time gospel to jazz, until it emerges sounding like it could come from nobody else.
Frisell has said that playing solo is always a challenge. “For me, music has all along been so much about playing with other people. Having a conversation. Call and response. Playing all by myself is a trip. I really have to change the way I think.”
He explained how he prepared for Music IS: “I played for a week at The Stone in New York. Each night I attempted new music that I’d never played before. I was purposely trying to keep myself a little off balance. Uncomfortable. Unsure. I didn’t want to fall back on things that I knew were safe. My hope was to continue this process right on into the studio. I didn’t want to have things be all planned out beforehand.”
That’s one explanation for the natural and apparently spontaneous way in which these short pieces develop, some of them new, some of them going right back to his mid-‘80s albums on ECM, with names that say a lot about how they sound: Winslow Homer, The Pioneers, Rambler, Kentucky Derby, Pretty Stars, Go Happy Lucky.
The range of styles is wide. Winslow Homer, for example, sounds, slightly disconcertingly, like he could be the long-lost Nashville child of Thelonious Monk, while Change In The Air opens up an interstellar vastness, and Ron Carter (like Miles, Frisell seems to be developing a penchant for naming songs after other musicians) has the form and gravitas of a traditional tune passed down from campfire to campfire.
The sounds are more electric and resonant than on Ghost Town which often bases itself around acoustic guitar, but they are closer in tone, giving even more cohesion to the sound and confusing the listener into thinking they might be listening to a four-armed soloist rather than an overdubbed track.
As with every other Bill Frisell recordings, the man’s modesty and ongoing search is strongly evident. He says: “I’ve been plugging away playing music for more than 50 years now. I’ll never figure it out. One of the amazing things about getting older is being able to revisit things that I heard or played long long ago. There’s always something new to discover, something to uncover. New pathways open up. If I’m really lucky I might even realise that I’ve learned something along the way. It’s far out looking at my own music though this long lens.”
It’s far out for the listener too.