Bill Frisell is a jazz guitarist primarily by virtue of the influence of jazz guitar virtuoso Jim Hall; otherwise, Frisell is an amazing amalgam of stylistic influences that make him something of the Cassandra Wilson of the guitar. Melding ambient soundscapes, the twang of country music, the wide-open chords of pure Americana, and the bluesy electric sculptures of Jimi Hendrix, Frisell is one of the most original guitarists to come down the pike in a long time.
On this recording, Frisell has surrounded himself with an auspicious jazz-based rhythm section consisting of powerful, innovative drummer Elvin Jones and bassist/composer/arranger Dave Holland. That both of these musicians have played in settings as varied as those in which Frisell has found himself promises a brilliant recording on paper, and this is one of those times when that promise is fulfilled in the actual recording.
The genre bending is present from the start, with the opening “Outlaws”, which morphs from a jangly guitar intro to a bluesy, discordant jazz piece to an open, swaggering shuffle. Jones shines, both defining and pushing the beat, while Frisell offers a virtual history of jazz and blues guitar influences. At the same time that he is playing what amounts to hard bop, he is delving into the Hendrix-by-way-of-Wes-Montgomery grab bag, and the trio swings as hard as any in recent memory. Dave Holland caps the opener off with a wonderfully melodic bass solo. “Twenty Years” is a waltz that allows all three players to demonstrate their mastery of space, with understatement being the key element. “Coffaro’s Theme” combines a folky sound with some ambient washes, with Frisell’s trademark pedals, loops, and tape effects sounding like an organic part of the mix. “Blues Dream” is indeed both bluesy and dreamy, with a late night feel and a few harmonic elements that hint at a more foreign locale than most of the tracks on the album.
If Frisell sometimes seems to mine the same Americana-laden sound as John Fahey, he does it with fewer nods at virtuosity and a more direct approach. His cover of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” is much looser, giving a jamboree jam approach to the piece that belies its lyrics, which are not heard here. While a bit more languid than one might expect to hear from guitarists of Foster’s time, the arrangement and overall feel convey the composition’s wistful, hopeful melancholy very well. The trio’s rendition of “Moon River” is simply gorgeous, stripping the song of its Breakfast at Tiffany’s association and portraying it as a beautiful melody with sophisticated harmonic underpinnings. Jones offers some stunning brushwork, and Holland’s support for Frisell’s solo flights are perfect.
One cannot help comparing this group with John Abercrombie’s Gateway trio, featuring Abercrombie on guitar, Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. That group has recorded four albums over a period of more than fifteen years, and I’d love to think that Frisell might find the results of this outing fascinating enough to repeat the experience periodically, though the chances of that are probably slim. Like the Gateway group, this trio demonstrates an amazing level of interplay, with Holland and Jones well able to get inside Frisell’s mind and offer not only support, but also real interaction and subtle colorations. I find it easy to imagine those who like to listen to more adventurous and improvisational rock-oriented guitarists loving this album as much as jazzheads. One of the elements of the Gateway group that was intriguing was its ability to do extended group improvisations that were musically successful, like some kind of jazzy Grateful Dead. Frisell, Holland, and Jones could no doubt provide some intriguing results with group improvisation as well. How about it, guys? If not, at least we have this album to enjoy, and if you enjoy guitar improvisation by a master musician, it comes highly recommended.