Bill Frisell: Blues Dream

Bill Frisell
Blues Dream

Here is a true story about this recording by the un-pin-downable guitarist Bill Frisell: A friend of mine read a great review of Blues Dream and bought it shortly after it came out in 2001. After listening to it just once, he brought it to me and said, “Man, this is unlistenable for me. You like this kind of stuff, right? Want it?”

Yes, please.

“This kind of stuff” is not really jazz, even though Bill Frisell is a renowned “jazz” guitarist and even though the group contains trumpet, alto sax, and trombone. What it is, rather, is a set of brief tone poems that draw on American blues, country-western, mountain music, funk, rock, and — you bet — jazz too. Blues Dream is a movie for your ears, a soundtrack for your passage through a daydream, a kind of classical music even: a set of most careful compositions that orchestrate sounds beyond our imaginations.

Blues Dream moves from beautiful to strange and back again. But it’s a classic.

It’s no surprise that this album is a kind of soundtrack, as the title track was commissioned for the play Temporary Help in the late 1990s. The whole group of 17 different compositions was then commissioned by the Minneapolis Walker Arts Center, where the play had premiered. Frisell then performed Blues Dream at the Walker for the first time in 1999. It is, by genesis and mood, theatrical: the sound of a journey.

That journey, at least as experienced as pure listening, takes your head through a history of our music, an American experience of the last century at least, digging into rural places and city centers, down-the-stairs jazz haunts as well as honky-tonks. It’s a movement of mood as much as melody, however, which may be why my friend had trouble latching on. It has moments (“Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming”) that evoke the classical sounds of Aaron Copland, but then it turns and repurposes nearly the same melody to give you “Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine”, which evokes Bob Wills or Buck Owens. There’s plenty of melody, but you never get the sense that these are “songs” or even “jazz tunes” with melodies, solos, and all that. This music, sometimes considerably more than regular jazz, points the way for you to follow.

Of course, Bill Frisell’s distinctive electric (and, here, acoustic) guitars are the star of the travelogue, creating a wide spectrum of colors and textures that generate a landscape of sound. Frisell tears off blues runs, say, on the simple one-chord groove of “Ron Carter” (a tune anchored by a simple three-note lick played by bassist David Piltch), ripping like a Hendrix acolyte. Yet he is equally nimble as a clean-toned melodicist on “Where Do We Go” or playing bent-note country blues on “Slow Dance”. In most cases, the leader’s playing is not a matter of chorus-after-chorus improvisations but rather careful readings of melodies or graceful embellishments that fill out his arrangements.

But just as effective and central to Blues Dream is the trumpet work from Ron Miles, who treats his horn like the Louis Armstrong artifact that it ought to be. Miles wheezes through the brass with a crying beauty on the title track, stating a counter-melody with Miles Davis-style simplicity and formal beauty. In the ensembles, Miles tends to play cleanly and orderly, but as a soloist, he is pure attitude and sensation. On “Things Will Never Be the Same”, he plays high and light to open the tune’s melody, squeezing out liquid streams. When the groove kicks in, he takes on a sharp “lead trumpet” sound. On the brief “Episode”, he is hip and soulful like Kenny Dorham, and on “Soul Merchant”, he shouts, brassy and brazen. Each appearance is a gem.

The other horns on this date, Curtis Fowlkes’ trombone and Billy Drewes on alto sax, are mainly heard in the ensembles. Kenny Wollesen acquits himself with versatile grace on drums. But the other key player here is string wizard Greg Leisz, who mainly gets featured on pedal steel, lap steel and National steel guitar. He is so critical to the sound of Blues Dream that he gets his own tune, “Greg Leisz”, where he plays a slow melody against the counterpoint of the horn section. Everywhere you look on this record, Leisz is there to add something important to the texture, to the criss-cross of melodic lines, or to the sense of unhurried urgency.

The more structured compositions on Blues Dream evoke the American tradition in classical and film music. “Fifty Years” uses a couple of simple lines in contrary motion to call up the whole swath of 20th century American composition. “Things Will Never Be the Same” begins with a set of minor passages that move slowly like the sunset over the mountains, then it shifts into a bouncing theme that evokes the more ambitious work of Frank Zappa — moving into a harder groove as Frisell and Leisz trade searing licks over the pounding rhythm section and brass.

Hearing it again, over ten years since its release, I realize clearly that Blues Dream is a unique kind of classic — a kind of art music that defies easy category in jazz or classical or pop terms. Having it reissued today is a good sign that the music has a shelf life beyond the typical “jazz” album. Bill Frisell, and so many other of today’s best musicians, has recorded often and brilliantly. And the music can sit on your shelf (on in you iTunes application, I suppose) and get lost.

Blues Dream deserves to be heard anew, the spotlight focused it again. Relisten to it or hear it for the first time. Either way, it’s a smash.

RATING 9 / 10