Even when at his most impressionistic, guitarist Bill Frisell manages to emphasize the importance of melody, building fragments of hummable tunes around musically abstract compositions. It’s this blending of the accessible with the avant garde that has long made Frisell a fascinating, enigmatic artist, one who refuses easy categorization and for whom the term musician’s musician seems apt. Having released at least one album per year since 1995 – often as many as three in a year – Frisell has a amassed a sizable discography that has allowed him to explore a wide range of styles and sounds.
While capable of music as viscerally strident as contemporaries Fred Frith and Marc Ribot, Frisell has in recent years opted for a more nuanced approach to his recordings, creating temperate approximations of recognizable melodies that seem to work more with the colors, shapes and emotions evoked by each. In this, his jazz-influenced approach to pop melodies is similar to that of pianist Brad Mehldau as each respect the parameters of the original melody while finding new and different elements within each to create something simultaneously familiar and entirely foreign.
Apparently having found a veritable fount of inspiration in the music of the mid-20th century following 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age! with its reimagining of then-popular guitar styles, Frisell explores the world of television and film themes on his latest, When You Wish Upon a Star. With each, Frisell takes the most recognizable elements of each, building around this central theme and then subjecting each to a funhouse mirror approach that extends and distorts melodies and motifs to create an often gloriously mutated, albeit gentle, impression of the familiar.
And while the approach in theory is often left-of-center, the results are anything but. The majority of When You Wish Upon a Star plays as pleasantly recognizable, if slightly skewed, background jazz. This is not music that requires your full and immediate attention. Rather it gently finds its way into your brain, hitting all the appropriate pleasure centers triggered by the familiar and/or nostalgic, before gradually making an impression with the musicality of each performance.
By and large, When You Wish Upon a Star feels almost somnambulant in its gentle approach. Melodies ease their way across the speakers, gently caressed by minimal percussion. In this, Frisell and company rarely rise much above a whisper. “Psycho Pt. 1”, however, is given an almost frenetic, klezmer feel, no doubt the residual influence of his time spent working with fellow musical iconoclast John Zorn. But by “Pyscho Pt. 2” the group is back to the more ethereal, with a delicate arrangement featuring frequent collaborator Petra Haden’s angelic, wordless vocals.
“The Shadow of Your Smile,” again with Haden on lead vocals, adheres to a standard jazz format. By playing it straight, the arrangement allows for a stylistic contrast in which subtle counter-melodies and ideas weave in and out of the tune without causing a distraction. So nuanced are many of these ideas that it takes several listens for the depth of the arrangement to sink in. While the ear is initially drawn to Frisell and Haden, it’s the melodic elements that exist just beyond the familiar that prove the most compelling, a tactic Frisell employs throughout much of When You Wish Upon a Star.
Somewhat surprisingly, much of this material has appeared before on previous albums. “Tales From the Far Side”, Frissel’s composition for Gary Larson’s titular comic strip adaptation, appeared on 1996’s Bill Frisell Quartet, while both the lovely arrangement of “Moon River” and the title track appeared previously on Frisell and Haden’s 2003 collaboration Petra Haden & Bill Frisell. As that album was billed more as Haden’s, it featured more straight-ahead pop and jazz material. Here this is Frisell’s show with Haden playing able collaborator throughout.
Equally surprising given the tenor of the album is the avant guitar freakout that closes “Tales From the Far Side”. Only here does Frisell elect to get noisy while the rest of the group gently carries on. Ultimately, it’s one of the few moments of genuine sparks in a largely subdued collection of the familiar. By stretching each just enough to make them interesting, Frisell and company manage to avoid creating the aural equivalent of wallpaper.
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