Bill Frisell – Big Sur (2013)

The progenitor of Americana jazz makes music that’s most directly inspired by a scenic crown jewel of Americana itself.

Long known to make beautifully pastoral music that’s inspired by many but delineative of no one, Bill Frisell’s long twisted music journey has often reflected the artist’s own benign mannerisms and the quest for a gorgeous melodic development, with no prejudice to how old or new it sounds. But a commission from the Monterrey Jazz Festival afforded the iconic guitarist rare time for deep reflection and rumination to make the music that ultimately grew out of the ten days he spent amidst a breathtaking piece of nature situated in the middle of California’s coast: Big Sur.

When Frisell left solitude at the Glen Deven Ranch at Big Sur, he had nineteen new songs that wound up on the album recorded a short time later up the road in Berkeley. When he returned to the place with his band — the newly formed Bug Sur Quintet — Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Hank Roberts (cello) and Rudy Royston (drums) shaped these products of Frisell’s communion with nature into that distinctive Bill Frisell sound, borrowing from folk, jazz, rock, chamber music and Appalachia. None of these band members are new to Frisell’s world (Roberts first appeared on 1987’s Lookout For Hope), but the grouping is unique, a merger of his 858 Quartet and his Beautiful Dreamers trio, of which Kang plays in both. Trusted producer Lee Townsend again helms the producer’s booth, completing the circle of familiarity that virtually ensures continuity with prior works…think of it as part of a grouping of certain Frisell records that also includes recent entries Sign of Life and Beautiful Dreamers, and much earlier excursions into his folky side like Gone, Just Like a Train.

Like the scenery he enjoyed at the ranch, there’s an embracing airiness to the music with an absence of the haunted quality that was part and parcel to Frisell’s last Americana-themed project, Disfarmer. With only one song running over five minutes and six under three, the compositions often limit themselves to simple constructions with few changes; Frisell plausibly could have created some of these strains intentionally uncomplicated and broad enough for his band to add their own flavor to the proceedings.

“A Beautiful View” is illustrative: over a simple vamp, everyone contributes in a unique way such that everyone stands out, but combined it’s contrapuntal bliss. Other songs have more complex underpinnings but in discreet ways: “Gather Good Things” consists of more of those cleverly interacting harmonies among Scheinman, Kang and Roberts but spanning across a shifting melody. “Going To California” has a majesty not just in the way the song glides unhurriedly but deliberately through its stately chord changes, but also in how the strings handle the melody, Frisell provides harmonic counterpoints, and Royston supplies the emotion.

Still, it’s a very together band; Frisell had the Carter Family in mind when he came up with “Sing Together Like A Family,” and in a traditional country-folk way, the quintet conveys that same vibe of togetherness. But that symmetry continues right into the syncopated funk of the too-brief “A Good Spot”.

There’s not a whole lot of soloing or Frisell’s notorious excursions to the edge, but for those who dig that side of him, he does bare a little teeth against a bluegrass backdrop on “Hawks.” Frisell lets his hair down again, but in a distinctly California way on the backbeat driven, beach rock of “The Big One” and the presence of three orchestral stringed instruments does nothing to water down that feel. The same goes for “Highway 1,” where Royston’s swampy rock pace is exploited by everyone else, conjuring up something of a chamber version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

Thus, Big Sur introduces no new ideas from Bill Frisell, but does a pretty good job in amplifying and refining some old ones, and he almost always thrives when given a theme to build music around. The scenery has worked for Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Charles Lloyd and Death Cab For Cutie, so why not a guy whose sensibilities were already positioned in that general area?

It’s music conceived by a clear mind, which in turn, can be ideal for clearing other people’s minds.

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Big Sur will become available on June 18 and is Frisell’s debut on Sony’s reborn OKeh label.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.