Bill Frisell is the guitarist of the moment, a talent who spans so much contemporary American music that he makes the cliché come true: no category can hold him.
Jazz fans will be quick to claim Mr. Frisell—an improvising American musician with a rich harmonic arsenal and a genre-spanning ear—as their own. Earlier in his career, Mr. Frisell seemed like a jazz guitarist with a dry, reverbed tone and a taste for twangy, open spaces. But it’s more accurate today to say that Mr. Frisell works within a self-defined genre in which the full palate of American musical styles are mixed and mashed, then extruded through the rather severe imagination of one extraordinary man. Recent albums have explored world music (The Intercontinentals), dissonant classical string music (Richter 858), old-timey folk (The Willies), jazz (With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones), and country (Nashville). But all of this music contains a myriad of echoes—that’s the Frisell-ian shadow cast over all his sessions.
These two double-discs—both live recordings of Mr. Frisell with Kenny Wolleson on drums, Viktor Krauss joining on bass in the Bay Area club Yoshi’s and Tony Scherr on bass down the stairs at New York’s Village Vanguard—neatly summarize one man’s singular musical voice. They are both indispensable to Frisell fans and a brilliant essay for novices on the wide-open possibilities of guitar music in 2005.
East/West is a traditional CD, and Further East/Further West is available only as a digital download from Mr. Frisell’s web site, but the choice between them is six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other, maybe a question of whether you want to hear the West Trio on a brilliant “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (West) or the East Trio on Dylan’s “Masters of War” (Further East). The selections on the CD are slightly more jazz-traditional (“My Man’s Gone Now” and “The Days of Wine and Roses” at the Vanguard), but the Further collection gives you out-there takes on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Body and Soul”. Across all four sets, you’ll hear Mr. Frisell’s alchemic artistry at its most direct. It is the most comprehensive survey of Mr. Frisell’s career currently available.
The West Trio with Viktor Krauss operates more like a rock group, achieving a single sound that features Mr. Frisell’s echoing guitar atop a mostly locked-in pairing between Mr. Wolleson and Mr. Krauss. “Shenandoah”, on West, begins with guitar laying out a pastoral melody over an electric loop. The band enters majestically and in perfect synchronization, building intensity as the guitar solo moves from atmospheric embellishment toward distorted volume and blues energy. All the while, however, the musicians work toward one purpose and with one voice. Further West‘s version of the Frisell classic “Lookout for Hope” operates similarly: Krauss and Wolleson establish a powerful-elastic groove over which Bill weaves a hammock of melody/harmony invention. These performances do not smack of rock “jam band” conventions but, rather, of the dynamics of more traditional pop bands that blend in a way that typical jazz groups would rather not. Each performance is a small pop symphony.
The East Trio is more concerned with conversation than unity. Mr. Wolleson, who grooves so gently and effortlessly at Yoshi’s, is a different beast in the Vanguard basement, slip-sliding across Mr. Scherr’s patterns rather than molding around them. Even on a relatively unjazzy workout like “Masters of War”, the trio plays with polyrhythmic counterpoint, and this in turn seems to inspire Mr. Frisell to a different kind of improvisation—one featuring more complex harmonies beyond the song structure. “Ron Carter” (East) is an utterly convincing original ballad originally recorded by a larger ensemble. Here, the trio makes a strong case that the contemporary guitar trio still has much ground for exploration, as Mr. Frisell uses every trick in his arsenal (harmonics, distortion, extra sustain, looping, phasing, you name it) to turn in a remarkably orchestrated jazz performance. More traditional but more transcendent are the two Bacharach tunes (“People” from East and “What the World Needs Now” from Further East) that cast this trio in a Jim Hall mode—delivering nuanced, impressionistic jazz readings of legitimate standards that deserve to be played much more often.
If the East Trio plays more “jazz” (another: Sonny Rollins’ “Paradox” on Further East), then it also strays the furthest. “The Vanguard” (East) is relatively atonal free jazz, and the solo-guitar-and-loop reading of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Further East) is pastels on acid. Most distinct are the tunes where Tony Scherr puts down his bass and does some acoustic guitar picking. East‘s one-two punch of “Crazy” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box” is cranky American music at its most lovely—the tempos ragged, the harmonies tart as well as solid, the melodies moving at insistently independent mixes of tempi. On “Tennessee”, a fairly straight bluegrass vibe is interrupted by a storm of feedback and free-drumming, only to find the original tune reemerging from the noise a while later. This exercise underlines Mr. Frisell’s sympathies perfectly: he is in love with the jagged edges of American music even though he consistently finds ways to make them beautiful.
Bill Frisell is by nature a restless and experimental musician, even if he loves to make you swoon. These trios would seem to be his home bases, one on each edge of the continent that his music so ably summarizes. And these two records sound perfect then: the view from home of one of our greatest musical travelers.