Gimme Five: Guitarist Bill Frisell’s collaborations outside of jazz

Bill Frisell’s appearance last Saturday with Marianne Faithfull at Paris’ New Morning club was another reminder of the jazz guitarist’s often underrated affinity for pop and rock music.

It goes beyond reinterpretating everyone from John Lennon to Madonna.

Frisell sat in, of course, on Faithfull’s 1987 album Strange Weather. He’s also appeared on albums with Elvis Costello, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and Cream’s Ginger Baker, among others.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In a ruminative talk, Bill Frisell discusses how what he hadn't mastered on the guitar ultimately helped shape his utterly unique sound.]

Heck, earlier this week, Bonnie Raitt’s Slipstream won a Grammy for best Americana album, thanks in part to an assist from none other than Frisell, who appears on three key tracks.

But, where to start? After all, you’ll find literally hundreds of albums that feature the guitarist as a sideman — and that’s to say nothing of the more than 30 projects he’s fronted himself over the years.

SER is here to help, with a handy five-deep list of key Frisell collaborations outside of jazz. Let’s start with that Faithfull album …

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 Hal Wilner 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.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: While Bill Frisell clearly bonded with the John Lennon songs on 'All We Are Saying,' he wasn't afraid to move beyond their familiar templates, either.]

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.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Guitarist Bill Frisell joined us for a rangy discussion on his John Lennon tribute project, working with legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter ... and Madonna?]

LUCINDA WILLIAMS – WEST (2007): Lucinda Williams talks about love, and heartbrokenness, but in an especially raw way — even for this legendarily confessional singer-songwriter. 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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Bonnie Raitt's 'Slipstream,' featuring three songs with Frisell, moved with nerve and wit beyond any Delta-blues expectations to become one of our favorite 2012 albums.]

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Vernon Reid talks about how jazz was always part of his musical experience, long before he turned toward heavier sounds with Living Colour..]

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.”

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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