Jazz Album Review: Playing the Music Eclectic

For fans of jazz, world music, Americana — in short, for fans of all the genres guitarist Bill Frisell has explored over the past decade — “East/West” is a must.

By James Marcus

Will the real Bill Frisell please stand up? It’s a question his admirers have been asking with increasing frequency over the past decade, as the brilliant guitarist and composer has donned and discarded all manner of stylistic finery: jazz, bluegrass, rock, world beat, and electronica. On a recent, unusually wide-ranging disc, “Richter 858,” he actually subbed for one of the violins in a string quartet. You have to hand it to the guy. Who else would be so self-effacing as to play second fiddle on his own recording?

It’s no sin to be eclectic, of course. And Frisell stamps everything he plays with the same tender, wistful, wacky sensibility. But if I had to choose the quintessential Frisell — the genuine, six-string Wizard of Oz — I would opt for the guitarist in a trio setting, with nothing between him and the audience but a daredevil rhythm section.

“East/West,” then, comes as an answered prayer. On his first live recording since 1991 (“Live,” with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron, was released in 1995 but recorded in Spain four years earlier), Frisell goes back to basics. He performs with not one but two overlapping trios. Kenny Wolleson, who’s occupied the drum chair since Blues Dream, appears on both the Western set (in Oakland) and the Eastern set (in Manhattan). The bass duties are divided between two estimable players, Viktor Krauss and Tony Scher. And what’s really fascinating is the way the altered configuration brings out two different sides of Frisell’s musical personality.

With Krauss, in California, we get the wild and wooly Bill, who tilts toward R&B and the more psychedelic outskirts of rock. No wonder he kicks off the set with “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” which he introduces with some subtle electronic tinkering before letting Krauss and Wolleson dig into the famous vamp. Just to keep us on our toes, he plays the head in clean, mellow octaves, as if he’s channeling Wes Montgomery.

But then the fireworks begin. Frisell is famous for his array of effects, those little boxes and pedals that used to bring such joy to the hearts of 14-year-old novices (myself included.) In his case, however, the effects are anything but window dressing. They’re extensions of the instrument itself, which Frisell plays with more attention to tone — to timbre, sound, noise — than any other living guitarist. So he follows his mild-mannered reading of the melody with a barrage of distortion and looped fragments. Some of the looped bits he runs backwards. Others he uses to duet with himself, a kind of high-tech shadowboxing that raises the inevitable question: is it live or is it Memorex?

Most of the pieces on the Oakland set follow a similar pattern. There’s a churning performance of “Blue for Los Angeles,” which makes the version on “Gone, Just like a Train” sound almost decorous. “Shenandoah” also moves from a melancholy whisper to a scream: note the bright, quasi-rockabilly passages in Frisell’s solo, where he sounds like a demented Scotty Moore.

It comes as something of a shock, then, to cue up the second disc. The leader opens with a delicate, mostly unaccompanied version of “My Man’s Gone Now.” On “Ghost Town” he played the same piece on acoustic guitar: here, on the electric, his touch is even more lyrical. You end up holding your breath until he’s done.

Is this a red herring? Nope. What comes next is another standard, “Days of Wine and Roses,” with Frisell unspooling long, single-note lines in the manner of Jim Hall. Wolleson picks up the brushes, which were apparently gathering dust during the Oakland date, and Tony Scherr does a bass walk behind the solo: why, they’re playing jazz! Sure, Bill keeps manipulating his tone — when he mutes the strings with his palm he gets a playful, pinging, metallic sound, one of his multiple signatures– and the looping machine does rear its digital head from time to time. Still, the Sturm und Drang is notably soft-pedaled. This is the disc you could take home to meet your parents.

Of course, that isn’t to say that there are no surprises. Frisell leads the troops through a winning, vibrato-drenched assault on “Goodnight, Irene.” He joins Scherr for a pair of acoustic-guitar duets: a zany version of “Crazy,” a less successful deconstruction of “Tennessee Flattop Box.” And on “Ron Carter,” alas, he runs afoul of his own compositional fluency. When he first played this slow jamming vehicle on “Blues Dream,” Frisell came up with an expansive septet arrangement. Here, stripped down to bare bones, it’s essentially a three-note riff, which Scherr and Wolleson run into the ground for more than ten minutes while the leader rummages in his capacious bag of tonal tricks. It’s not exactly boring — at one point Frisell seems to be taking apart blues licks and reassembling them like Rubik’s Cubes — but you do find yourself longing for the sleek and slippery textures of the original. For once, the music sounds only halfway there.

Because of this quasi-lemon, and because I’m partial to Krauss’s pushier, more prolix bass playing, I prefer the Oakland disc. For my money, it’s the best specimen of Frisell’s mastery since “Gone, Just Like a Train,” and his best live recording ever (although a 1999 bootleg of his quartet with Greg Leisz, “Live at Yoshi’s,” is just about on par). And despite my carping, I’d hate to be without the kinder, gentler performances captured on the New York disc. They do, after all, represent a key part of Frisell’s Jekyll-and-Hyde persona.

For fans of jazz, world music, Americana — in short, for fans of all the genres Frisell has so assiduously explored over the past decade –East/West is a must. And for guitarists? Well, let’s just say that Christmas came early this year.

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