Bill Frisell – Music IS (2018)

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Bill Frisell recently released Music IS, a solo studio project, via Okeh / Sony Music Masterworks – but it almost had a slightly different title.

Frisell’s mantra is “music is good,” a saying which comes from his banjo-playing friend Danny Barnes. “That is something that I can say is always true. It is so perfect. Everything I need to know is that phrase,” Frisell says. “I almost called the album that, but then I thought that might be too literal. It’s good to leave it open. Playing solo is always a challenge. For me, music has all along been so much about playing with other people, having a conversation, call and response. Playing all by myself is a trip. I really have to change the way I think.”

Music IS is not Bill Frisell’s first solo recording, of course. There have been others, including 2000’s Ghost Town (Nonesuch) and 2013’s Silent Comedy (Tzadik), but this features compositions which are totally Frisell’s, along with a lot of overdubs.

Just before the recording, Frisell played a week at the Stone in New York, trying new music each night. The recording of Music IS was meant to continue that process, keeping the light and spontaneous feeling when recording. “The whole process, choosing the tunes, playing the gig, tracking in the studio, ended up feeling like an investigation into memory,” Frisell says. “There was no planned concept, but what materialized almost felt like an overview.”

Music IS became a collection of musical narratives – stories, told by Frisell as he plays different themes, tunes and creates musical landscapes. Some of them are bare, truly solo numbers, whilst others are more arranged and orchestrated. The use of overdubbed layering and looping then creates an ensemble feel. With so many records on which he is named, 40 plus of those being as leader, Bill Frisell has created an album which represents both his earliest jazz records in the ’80s and his recent multi-discipline collaborations.

Recorded in August 2017 at Tucker Martine’s Flora Recording and Playback studio in Portland, Oregon and produced by Lee Townsend, Music IS features all original songs. Some are new, including “Change in the Air,” “Thankful,” “What Do You Want,” “Miss You” and “Go Happy Lucky.” Others are solo adaptations of original compositions Bill Frisell had previously recorded, such as “Ron Carter,” “Pretty Stars,” “Monica Jane and “The Pioneers.”

“Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine are two of my long-time, closest, most-trusted musical brothers. We’ve been through thick and thin. They clear the way for me to just play,” Frisell says. “When we got to the studio I brought a big pile of music, and we went from there, let one thing lead to the next, and trusted the process in the moment. We mixed as we went along. The composing, arranging, playing, recording, and mixing all became one thing.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to record my own compositions,” Frisell continues. “In the past few years I’ve done so many projects playing other people’s music – including John Lennon [on All We Are Saying], Guitar in the Space Age! and When You Wish Upon a Star. It’s wonderful and seductive. That’s how I learn. I could spend the rest of my life studying Burt Bacharach, or Charlie Parker, or Bach or … It’s never ending.

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

“But it was time to get back to my own stuff,” Frisell adds. “What ended up on this album were a variety of pieces, some brand new and some from way far back. ‘In Line’ and ‘Rambler’ are from my very first recordings on ECM. I’ve been plugging away playing music for more than 50 years now; I’ll never figure it out. One of the amazing things about getting older is being able to revisit things that I heard or played long ago. There’s always something new to discover, something to uncover. New pathways open up. If I’m really lucky, I might even realize that I’ve learned something along the way. It’s far out looking at my own music though this long lens.”

The results are an amazing and precious thing. “Change in the Air” is purified harmonies. A relaxed style takes us gently into a landscape of calm, peace and serenity – but wait, hidden in there are some great changes and alongside the steadfast and clever rhythms, there are tweaks and a slowing down, speeding up and changing of tempo. It’s beautifully worked and harmonized. As an introduction, this is a piece to sit back, listen and think about nothing. “Change in the Air” is a great settler and opener to Music IS. There is almost a madrigal feel to this in places, and it is simply lovely.

“Go Happy Lucky” is different, both in feel and style, and works as a contrast to the opener with an open-handed feel to the start, short chordal interludes and then some delicate and intricate weaving over the root notes. It’s a clever piece which feels as if it was composed on the spot and developed organically. Eventually, there is a repeated motif, which is light, gentle and sweet; the final part of the number then rotates it.

“In Line” is underpinned with a deep, bluesy rhythm, over the top of which sits an improvisational guitar development and in between are some esoteric notes created by electronic sounds which emphasize and enhance the spacey feel to this number. There is a lovely section where the electronica rhythms completely offset the settled rhythms underneath, before the guitar launches into a series of gentle, slightly plaintive motifs. The contrasts between the calm, light feel of the earlier part and the heavier, doubly emphasized latter stages are very engaging.

“Kentucky Derby” is loud, proud and indulgent, with chords set almost as a pianismo line in the first section. The guitar soars over and across the top, bridging the chordal anecdotes, and a different feel completely takes hold. The simple development of the sound here is incredible. “Made to Shine” is open-fretted, wiry and played in a reflective, introverted tone – the thinking man’s country riffs, if you like. What is wonderful here is the way you can hear, crystal clear, every change Bill Frisell makes on the frets. Every finger movement and each note is like a hot knife through ice in its cutting clarity.

“Miss You” is tinged with a gentle melancholia and the bare, open working of the strings, coupled with the gentlest of melodies emphasize this. A sadness creeps in over the chords laid down and over which the solo guitar sings, creating a sense of beauty and peace, too. It’s emotive, contrasting and effective. “Monica Jane” is different again, beginning with a very spacey, open feel and developing into a gorgeous, down-winding number. Just before the two-minute mark, it changes into a song, with the guitar singing out over the bass line, adding to the picture painted and the story told. Just after the four-minute mark, a change of rhythm denotes a rise in temperature and tempo. Here, the story takes a twist, a hint of devilment and a darker feel. This piece is not for the faint hearted.

“Pretty Stars” is aptly named, for the tune conjures up the peaceful setting of space, lying back, staring up and just being there. A repeated three-note motif is used as the backdrop for several themes to be developed. Lovely. “Rambler (alt. version)” is short but oh so sweet, with a definite country lilt and a walking gait and two guitar lines in conversation, developing a lovely song section part way through. “Rambler” itself has the same elements, but now with electronic noise box additions and loops adding to the effects. A much longer number and far more explorative in feel, this is probably the highlight track of Music IS. At times, Frisell’s guitar soars, solos and at others, it is layered amongst textures – which makes the track listenable, interesting and exceptionally engaging.

“Ron Carter” uses a simple looped bass line, over which the soloing guitar paints various musical characteristics, from a redolent thematic loose theme to a second two-chord layer looping along with the bass line. “Thankful” is more like a song in its structure. Bill Frisell uses a descending chord series in parts, then adds textures and layers to create a rich, deeply-charged piece, full of emotion. It’s contrasted with the phrased passages which create a sense of familiarity and warmth. The piece is carefully built and worked up to more complexity, distortion layered, looped additions, adding deeper colors and hues for the listener.

[GIMME FIVE: Jazz guitar great Bill Frisell joins us for an in-depth look at key moments from ‘All We Are Saying,’ ‘Nashville’ and ‘Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian,’ among others.]

“The Pioneers” has an open, metal-stringed feel and is gentle, with a sense of wondering, feeling and perhaps sensing the way ahead. The track is very aptly named, with its countryfolk-seeped feeling and a sense of roaming infused due to its rolling gait. Soft, sweet, gentle. “Think About It” is heavier, deeper and just slightly more menacing. Short (very), this is 59 seconds of amplified chords – almost. “What Do You Want” features looped and layered guitars and a very deep bass line, and is a moment of wonder in that it works its way from ethereal concepts to melodic moods in just under three minutes, then finishes again with spacey electronica.

The closing track is “Wilslow Homer,” which is bluesy – no, a tune, then bluesy but with chords descending in a skewiff manner with harmonies warped and bent. At times, it’s reminiscent of Muddy Waters, at others like Sonny Sharrock. There are many styles, many little journeys before Frisell ends back on a single string. Brilliant.

This entire album is an essence – a capturing and distillation of Bill Frisell playing what he likes, trying new ideas and weaving them into creative tapestries which engage, surprise and yet do not define this musician. He has such a range no one project could be definitive. There is a sense of exploration, of testing, trying and developing further the music which is so inherently part of this player.

Though this is a solo recording, Frisell is not always playing alone. He dubs over ukulele, guitar accompaniment, bass, music boxes and loops sound to add textures, depths and colors to the compositions. Yet, knowing when to use and when not is part of the creative process – and also how to use them. Using them for emotive intonation and emphasis is a skill which Bill Frisell has in spades. He stops short of over use of electronic tweaks and additions, and allows his guitar to do what he and it do best – play.


Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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