The distinctive American guitarist with string trio and drums, evoking a California town as only he can.
At this point in the career of guitarist Bill Frisell, there’s not much point in continuing to talk about his music as “jazz”—or as “Americana” . . . or really as anything for that matter. Frisell has cornered the market on something wholly his own: an instrumental form that uses elements of different genres to create cinematic soundscapes that lope or slither, walk or skitter like a great character making his way across a movie screen.
Big Sur is an outing for the leader’s “858 Quartet”, which is Frisell plus Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Hank Roberts’ cello, plus the drummer Rudy Royston. Frisell wrote this music (19 somewhat connected short tunes) on a commission while staying on a ranch at Big Sur, inspired by classic California coastline. The sound is mostly open and pleasing, and maybe sometimes just a little too nice—a little boring—in the way that beauty sometimes can be.
So, to be sure, this is mostly very “pretty” music, and that may be its glory and its problem. Although there is plenty of folky edge here—a kind of funky sweetness that suggests authenticity—most of the music on Big Sur is consonant, mid-tempo stuff. It’s soulful, like, dig “Highway 1”, with Jenny Sheinman’s violin bending notes and the strings generally playing syncopated patterns over a two-chord groove. Or how about the delightful but lightweight “We All Love Neil Young”, a duet between Frisell and Kang that is a charming minute and a half of skipping guitar and pure melody? Nice stuff.
But very nearly each of these little portraits leans on a certain kind of easy, loping vibe—a dreamy melodicism that comes with all the right kind of “authentic” American/folk affectations. It’s interesting and cool—but I admire this music more than I like it. The tunes feel a bit like museum exhibits. You might say that this music presents you with a bit of a guilt trip: Hey, man, you really should dig this, whether it’s terrific or not, just because it sounds so “real”.
So, here’s an example. “Walking Stick” starts with a hiply syncopated melody, jumping around an ostinato type of bass line played on cello. Then it shifts suddenly into a complementary melody played without syncopation over a country-ish backbeat. This shift continues, back and forth over a series of variations in the arrangement. It’s a neat trick, and the playing is wonderfully light and together, with each variation adding new little countermelodies and licks. No one ever really cuts loose, but the music lesson is clear: that the jazz content and folk-country content aren’t really all that different.
I just wish that Frisell or Scheinman or someone else in the band was cutting loose a bit more. I wish that “A Beautiful View” were a little less beautiful—or a little less delicately lovely in the way a tiny jewel box is beautiful—and a little more expansive. While I appreciate that “The Big One” is a rocking blues that features Frisell’s electric guitar sounding vaguely surf-rock-ish over Royston’s Big Beat groove, there’s something in the string trio’s part in the tune that makes this 2:43 of music feel the way “rock” feels when it’s played, say, on Broadway: a simulacrum of rock rather than the real thing.
But, sure, much of Big Sur is lovely, without reservations. I’m a fan of the loping 6/8 melancholy of “Cry Alone”, which is not only very pretty but also has a sad dancing feeling that complicates some as the strings harmonize the melody. “Shacked Up” is intriguing in a dissonant way—another abstract blues, but cast in droning harmonies have aren’t too easy to find charming, with a genuine cry and moan built into the composition. The closer, “Far Away”, is another gem. All five members of the band contribute to a slow build-up introduction in very subtle ways, and then the strings introduce a sinuous melody that Frisell blends into as well. On this track, as elsewhere, there really isn’t much jazz-style “soloing”, but the players all get to improvise in the crevices of the tune. It’s a beautiful mood piece, soundtrack stuff you might say, but every one of Royston’s backbeat hits of brushes-against-snare comes like a chip of ice in a warm drink.
Bill Frisell’s music has become a national treasure because it seems to whir together so many of the things that make American music a wonder. Sometimes I wish that the puree were a little less smooth, a little less like wallpaper, and that’s the case with Big Sur. But it’s still a lovely experience, made by one of the masters we have with us in this age.