[17 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Guitar wizard Bill Frisell has left the Nonesuch label, and that’s a little weird. They proudly released his music for years and Frisell seemed to be comfortable working for them. “...I’ve been with the same record company for almost 20 years, which is kind of unheard of these days. Somehow I just got with these people and they somehow stuck with me all this time. They’re supportive and they’re sensitive to what it takes to keep creative with the music,” he said in a Winter 2006 Fretboard Journal interview. But his reasons for breaking away from Nonesuch are more quantitative in nature than qualitative. He wanted to release more material, more often. Those who have followed Frisell’s career far back enough can tell you that the man likes to have multiple pies in his oven at any given time, be it a score to a silent film, a commissioned suite set to photographs, an international collaborative, or just kicking the can around with the elder statesmen of post-bop jazz. And if he feels that one of those pies is ready to take out and serve, he doesn’t want to wait for the company man’s say-so anymore. For example, I saw the premiere of his Disfarmer project two years before it was released on CD. And the holdup was…?
Beautiful Dreamers is Frisell’s first album for the Savoy Jazz label and, on the surface, there don’t appear to be any sharp turns in his music this time around. One thing that is striking about the album is the format of Frisell’s new trio, with Eyving Kang on violin and Rudy Royston on drums. It’s pretty unlikely as jazz trios go, but Frisell insisted on assembling a crack band based on personalities rather than instruments. A quick listen to Beautiful Dreamers makes this understandable, since all three men seem to gel while barely breaking a sweat. In no uncertain terms, it’s good chemistry.
And since Bill Frisell has such deep reverence for jazz and Americana equally, his audience will naturally want to know which style his latest releases will favor. Beautiful Dreamers throws things together into a pleasant blur, not wanting to commit to any one side and being entirely comfortable with its own ambiguity. It’s not what you would call genre-bending, perhaps just genre-stirring. This haze has already taken hold by track two with “Winslow Homer”, by sewing Kang’s pizzicatos to Frisell’s electric twang, while Royston does something entirely different, taking the overall sound away from the meadow to steer it downtown.
Of the 16 tracks within, six are covers. And when Frisell does covers, he tends to reach way, way back in time. Two famous oldies get a faithful reading, show tune standard “Tea for Two” and A.P. Carter’s “Keep on the Sunny Side”. Even though the latter begins with a convincing gypsy jazz imitation and later finds Royston placing the kick-drum beat in an odd place here and there, Frisell and his trio seem like they are afraid to tinker with these songs for fear of angering purists of American music. But you have to admit that Bill Frisell sounds like a natural when plucking his way through a Carter Family favorite. It’s hard to believe this was the same guy who once earned a living with John Zorn’s Naked City in the ‘80s.
One Frisell original worth mentioning is his dedication to Vic Chesnutt, “Better than a Machine”, mainly because it has few predecessors in his vast back catalog. For one thing, Rudy Royston’s backbeat is remarkably straightforward. Secondly, this is a Frisell composition that plays harmonic leap frog, ascending the scale with Kang and not really reaching a point of resolve. Little musical treats like this seem hard to come by anymore, but an artist like Bill Frisell makes it out to be as simple as, well, pie.
With Lee Townsend in the producer’s chair for the umpteenth time, Beautiful Dreamers doesn’t take time to stake out new territory. Instead, Frisell, Kang, and Royston swim around in their collective pond, likely sewing the seeds for more ambitious music in the future. As the guitarist himself puts it in a recent bio, “I can’t wait to hear what happens next.” As a Frisell fan, I echo that, because I think this combo can get more creative than Beautiful Dreamers. But for now, I’ll take it.