Bill Frisell – Valentine
(Blue Note. Review by John Bungey)
Avant-garde axe shredder, ECM sound painter, Buster Keaton-soundtrack composer? Which Bill Frisell will turn up on the new album Valentine? In fact, the answer won’t surprise anyone who knows the Seattle guitarist’s recent work. This is Frisell once again as a sort of countrified Hendrix, celebrating homegrown American music ancient and not so ancient. He’s debuting his latest trio on record – double bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. They are a subtle unit – spontaneous but without allowing musical structure to collapse – who lace familiar melodies with discreet harmonic experiments.
The 16 tracks include standards, traditional tunes and originals that can sound like traditionals. Opening with Boubacar Traoré’s Baba Drame, the trio join the dots between Mali and the Delta blues, the sounds from Frisell’s reverse-delay pedal swirling like mist as the music decelerates into the slo-mo reverie of Hour Glass. From here the band take in the skewed blues of the title track (on YouTube here), the gently pensive Winter Always Turns to Spring, Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and Bacharach and David’s What the World Needs Now Is Love. Levees, with its splashy cymbals and muscular bass, sounds like a blues-rock power trio at half speed. The main set ends with We Shall Overcome – a Frisell staple that he says he will keep playing “as long as needed”. Of three bonus tracks, Dance with its combustible drum solo and wailing guitar, and the sinister Back to Normal School in Newark sound like refugees from another, edgier album entirely.
Frisell is once again exploring that singular musical vision that makes the self-effacing 69-year-old one of American jazz’s greats (an introvert commanding the most extrovert of instruments). Anyone who has enjoyed recent projects will not come away disappointed. And yet… there’s a sense of more of the same here with some of the furrows well-ploughed – his take on a hokey cowboy tune like Wagon Wheels is sleepily charming but very familiar. Listen back to early albums such as This Land or, especially, Have a Little Faith – that daringly original mix of Madonna, Charles Ives and marching bands – all that scope and ambition. On Valentine, Frisell is in his comfort zone. It’s an expansive space that’s agreeable to visit, but it’s a comfort zone all the same.