Bill Frisell – Unspeakable (2005)

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by Mark Saleski

Big ears: usually a none-too-nice description of some poor kid on the elementary school playground. In the jazz world, “big ears” is a good thing.

The musician with big ears has an advantage when responding to band mates and improvising against them. The big ears concept can also be extended to a musician’s use of external influences.

In Bill Frisell’s case the latter concept is more than evident with his stew of jazz, blues, folk, avant and several other musics that I’m sure I’m forgetting. On Unspeakable, Frisell partnered with producer/musical mad scientist Hal Wilner resulting in one fine and thought-provoking chunk ‘o sound.

Over the past I’m-not-sure how many years, there has been some grousing that Frisell has become too deeply enamored with the Americana thing. While I can see where they’re coming from, I’ve found no problem with Frisell’s track. Maybe the music had become too ‘slow’ for some. For a person like me, who sees too much speed in all areas of modern life, his introspective takes on American music were the perfect tonic. Plus, there’s nobody else out there doing things like simultaneously paying tribute to Aaron Copland and Madonna (check out the respectful “Billy The Kid” and the deconstruction of “Live To Tell”, both on Have A Little Faith).

Never one to be afraid of hefting a big sonic palette, Frisell adds Wilner’s production genius as well as his turntable and sampler skills. Two guys with big ears … hooboy, this is some tasty stuff. Another wrinkle here is the groove. While you wouldn’t mistake this material for, say, John Scofield with Medeski, Martin & Wood, there is definitely some percolatin’ rhythm going on. The opening “1968” hops along on the strength of the percussion of Don Alias and Kenny Wollesen while many of the more familiar elements write the story: chiming guitar lines and ‘commentary’ guitar responses. Who better to improvise with Frisell than the man himself? Rounding out this sound are some string arrangements executed by the stellar “858 Strings” of Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola) and longtime Frisell cohort Hank Roberts on cello.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Bill Frisell discusses his John Lennon tribute recording ‘All We Are Saying,’ as well as key moments from ‘Nashville’ and ‘Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian,’ among others.]

For the fan of the ‘thoughtful Frisell,’ there are tunes such as “Sundust” (with very cool “Tribal Calling” samples), “Gregory C” (all Frisell and Wilner), and especially “Hymn For Ginsberg,” which pairs up the 858 Strings with Frisell at his pastoral best.

Then, for those who first encountered Frisell in the Before We Were Born era (I’m in that group), there are things like “Stringbean” (full of those angular guitar lines we all love), “Fields of Alfalfa” and “Old Sugar Bear.”

Unspeakable closes things out with eight minutes and fifty-nine seconds of “Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye.” Said to be based on Teddy Lasry’s “Sonate En Plein Ciel,” this is one spooky piece of music that starts out all American Gothic but ends closer to The Scream. Pure Frisell, I tell ya.

You can think of Unspeakable as a Bill Frisell career retrospective, played out via new compositions. If that seems like a contradiction in terms, just give the album a listen. You’ll come around.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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