Just in case his quiet demeanor and general “nice guy-ness” don’t get the message across about guitarist Bill Frisell, how about this: On his contribution to ECM’s new :rarum series, where artists were asked to compile their favorite tracks from the label’s vaults, Frisell chose to close with a song on which he doesn’t play. How’s that for unassuming?
Granted, the track is a tribute to Frisell by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, a recasting of Frisell’s song “Throughout.” But compare Frisell to Chick Corea, who liked the idea of sharing his own performances so much that he’ll spread his out over
Frisell recorded only three albums for ECM before moving to Elektra and then Nonesuch Records in the late 1980s, but there is a wealth of material to choose from for his collection thanks to his frequent appearances on discs by Paul Motian, Paul Bley, Jan Garbarek and others. That ubiquity gave Frisell 17 albums from which to select the 14 tracks on the disc. He chose equally from his own discs and those of others. The one constant, of course, is his guitar, an easily identified instrument that Frisell plays with the expressiveness of a horn or a pedal steel guitar. It is a tightly controlled yet nuanced sound, clean tones that sustain in small pulses of echo and reverb. Frisell is a jazz guitarist kind of like ECM is a jazz label. You can start there to describe either, but both transcend such parochial description.
The opening three tracks come from Frisell’s work as part of drummer Paul Motian’s band and trio. On the opening “Mandeville,” Frisell joins saxophonist Joe Lovano in dropping Motian’s jaunty melody. Though it was recorded 20 years ago, Frisell’s tone already sounds fully formed. He slides a finger across the volume knob, phasing his notes into and out of the song at the right moment. “Introduction” and “India” from the Paul Motian Trio album
follow. On the first track, Frisell goes it alone, setting the scene for the tune to follow. There, he and Lovano play another gorgeous Motian melody. “Paul writes some of the most beautiful, simple, perfect melodies I’ve ever heard,” Frisell writes in the liner notes. “‘Introduction’ is one of them.”
The fourth track introduces dissonance to the proceedings. Frisell joins saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s group for “Singsong.” Frisell’s playing offers a smooth counterpoint to the leader’s angular lines on this 1983 track. Frisell writes that while the group had played together extensively on a tour before this date, Garbarek didn’t allow the playing of any new music until time to record. “He wanted the music to take shape for the first time as we were recording it,” he writes. “I was really impressed by that kind of courage.”
From there Frisell dips into his own trio of discs for ECM. He pulls one track from his first ECM disc,
The three tracks from
, which predate those later collections by a decade, clearly show the guitarist toying with folk and country textures. “People say this has come into my playing in recent years. I think it’s been there all along,’’ he writes in the liner notes.
The disc closes with two more tracks featuring Frisell as sideman, and that tribute from Bryars. Frisell participates in an all-star session including saxophonist Lee Konitz and bassist Dave Holland for “Kind of Gentle” from Kenny Wheeler’s
disc. On the former, Frisell and Holland play off each other well, their stringed excursions meshing well behind the lines from Konitz and Wheeler. The latter Frisell says he chose not because of his own playing so much as for the interaction of the group. “As a guitar player, I find the piano probably the most difficult instrument to play with,” he writes. “With Paul Bley you don’t have to consider any of this. Everything seems to work.”
That last track, from Bryars, seems out of place only because it doesn’t include Frisell’s guitar, what has become by disc’s end the thread that holds everything together. Yet it makes perfect sense. Frisell’s playing is nothing if not complementary, and what better way to complement his own work than with a tribute? Bryars molds and shapes Frisell’s original tune, maintaining the feel of the original while taking it in new and interesting directions. As Frisell writes, “I sometimes have dreams of music like this. It was so inspiring to hear what could be done with one of my simple tunes and showed me some possibilities for what I might strive for in my own writing.”
It’s clear he took that message to heart, taking his music far and wide in the 18 years since he left ECM. Yet his work now contains nearly all of the elements first aired on these songs. As such, fans wanting to hear more of Frisell’s early work but who don’t know where to start would do well to seek this out. So, too, would those looking for a primer from this prolific artist.