Bill Frisell – All We Are Saying (2011)

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The thing that makes today’s release of All We Are Saying feel so connective is guitarist Bill Frisell’s willingness to simply let things happen — to accept life as it goes.

He selected the songs for this John Lennon tribute as they occurred, either to him or to a crack band of familiars that included Jenny Scheinman (violin), Greg Leisz (steel guitars, guitars), Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums). Then, without much rehearsal, they set about interpreting the songs — each one of them a little microcosm of memory, stretching from the early 1960s (“Please Please Me,” “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”) to the heart of the Beatles creative zenith (“Come Together,” “Across the Universe”) to solo successes (“Give Peace a Chance,” “No. 9 Dream,”) to the late singer’s halted third-act comeback in 1980 (“Woman,” “Beautiful Boy”). Yet that very history, something that might have made a lesser talent too careful, is only glancingly referenced here. There are times, in fact, when the underlying melodies, so familiar as to become rote, don’t bubble up until the song is well underway. While Frisell clearly bonds with the core emotions that each song initially held, he’s not afraid to move beyond the obvious template.

That gives the album a thrumming vibrancy, like wind suddenly billowing up through the songs.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Bill Frisell discusses his Lennon tribute album, signature career moments and how what he can’t play helped shape his sound.]

When All We Are Saying is at its best, a lyrical, almost diaphanous meditation — in particular on subtly seductive ballads like “Julia” and, perhaps the album’s signature moment, a tender reworking of “Nowhere Man.” In many ways, none of these songs is as you’d expect. “Beautiful Boy,” for instance, is somehow transformed into a joyous narrative as Frisell, Leisz and Sheinman play in surging unison. “Imagine” (see video below) takes on a dreamlike reverie, while “Hold On” swings with a newfound insistence. “Mother,” this darkly harrowing song in its initial form, becomes a ruminative blues howl. Only the most overt rock numbers fail to completely delight, as moments like the fiddle-driven “Revolution” seem to revert to a homey, but ultimately repetitive cadence.

All We Are Saying, issued today on 429 Records/Savoy Jazz, continues a period of stunning productivity for Frisell, who has now released three albums in 13 months. Beautiful Dreams featured violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston, while Sign of Life showcased Frisell’s 858 Quartet of Kang, Scheinman, and cellist Hank Roberts.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Nick DeRiso

    This isn’t, of course, Bill Frisell’s first intersection with rock music. He’s also had stopovers with Cream (Ginger Baker, anyway), Elvis (Costello, that is) and the Rolling Stones (by way of Jagger’s one-time muse Marianne Faithfull), among others. My thoughts …

    ELVIS COSTELLO – DEEP DEAD BLUE (1995): A live document from Frisell’s appearance with Elvis Costello at London’s Meltdown Festival the same year, Deep Dead Blue is the capstone on a musical relationship that also includes a series of brilliant do-overs of songs from Costello’s Burt Bacharach project on 1999’s The Sweetest Punch. Here, Frisell does a masterful job — he’s subtle, supportive yet at the same time distinctive – while reinterpreting some mid- and late-1980s Costello deep cuts. There are also a few items of jazzier fare, like Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare” and “Gigi,” from Lerner and Loewe. The only complaint: The set’s all too brief, at less than 30 minutes long.

    LUCINDA WILLIAMS – WEST (2007): Lucinda Williams talks about love, and heartbrokenness, but in an especially raw way — even for this legendarily confessional singer-songwriter. Producer Hal Wilner, having been handed some rough demos by Williams, elected to keep the often devastatingly unguarded scratch vocals and build the album around them. Frisell, however, keeps it from becoming a wrist-slashing drag, often nudging West into more redemptive places, while performing with a tone as warm as it is inviting.

    VERNON REID – SMASH AND SCATTERATION (1985): A memorably offbeat mashup, with Frisell and Vernon Reid — well before he came to fame as part of the heavy-rocking Living Colour. There are hints of both guitarists’ future successes in Americana and metal, but (fair warning, here) neither Frisell nor Reid stick to their scripted roles — something that might be a challenge to fans of either’s later work. Frisell, for instance, makes use of a tinny beat-box and analog synthesizers. Whoa. Even more jarringly, you’ll find Reid on the banjo. Wait, what? Through the sheer force of their combined energy and delight, however, much of it works, anyway.

    MARIANNE FAITHFULL – STRANGE WEATHER (1987): Frisell made a number of textured, nuanced contributions to this world-weary record, a late-career triumph that marked Marianne Faithfull’s long-hoped for recovery from her nearly two-decades long struggle with heroin. The result is an intriguing mixture of smack-rhythm rock, neon-lit cabaret and nicotine-stained soul. Strange Weather, with Wilner again producing, included covers of tunes by Tom Waits — the title track, which has become a concert staple — Bob Dylan, Dr. John and Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. The album’s brooding highlight, however, is an achingly melancholic remake of the Rolling Stones’ “As Time Goes By.”

    GINGER BAKER – FALLING OFF THE ROOF (1995): Appearing with the legendary drummer from Cream, you might be expecting power-trio blues-rock. Nope. Instead, Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden, on their second trio recording with Ginger Baker, continue exploring straight-ahead jazz. Frisell’s spare atmospherics perfectly suit the drummer’s authoritative tone, working at times in contrast and at others as friendly confederate. Oh, and anybody looking for a connection back to Baker’s days with Clapton would have to study hard, but it’s there: The imaginatively titled “Vino Vecchio” — meaning “old wine” in Italian — is built on the foundation of Cream’s “Sweet Wine.”