Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age!

Space Cadet Frisell requests permission to come aboard.
Bill Frisell
Guitar in the Space Age!
Okeh / Sony Masterworks

It was in February of 2011 that a friend of mine and I caught a premier performance of Bill Frisell’s band performing the songs of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. It was named Not So Fast, a mantra that the legendary jazz guitarist would use from time to time to describe his own career. The music of West and Bryant, a hyper drive take on dueling electric guitar and lap steel recorded in the days of astronaut worship and pills swallowing, had far more in common with the Atkins/Paul and Travis/Maphis records of old than anything Frisell had ever committed to tape. After all, Bill Frisell was not all that familiar with the music of West and Bryant when approached about the commission. But once he heard the original recordings, Frisell went about making the music his own. Pedal steel guru Greg Leisz was in the band that night, helping Frisell summon the recognizable lead in every song despite the slow tempos. The two performances booked for that night were sold out and the show was a success. Walking out of the building and to my friend’s car, we assured ourselves that, one day, Not So Fast would see an official release.

The closest thing we have now is Guitar in the Space Age!, another one of Bill Frisell’s exercises in nostalgia, much like his 2011 John Lennon tribute All We Are Saying…. But can one really blame him for wanting to revisit this era? You had the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the moon landing, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Fender guitars, surf rock and sexual liberation. To have those things swirling around the collective consciousness during one’s formative years would have been a…well, a trip. But the flip side of that coin was the cold war, duck-and-cover nuclear drills, Vietnam, Watergate, the assassinations of Dr. King and the Kennedy brothers and watching civil rights demonstrators getting abused by police dogs and high pressure fire hoses. Too much went wrong in order to let the good stuff last. One of those traits lost is mankind’s sense of exploration. A Tom Wolfe essay from a few years ago lamented the fact that we just don’t get excited about space travel like we used to. Baby boomers grew up with a mixture of scientific optimism and dread. We can land on the moon! Oh, also, we can all be vaporized in a nuclear flash. Frisell and his band take a stab at striking this balance on Guitar in the Space Age!. Even the press release finds him reluctant to paint those decades as rosy ones. Of the time’s darkness, he simply said “it just had to leave a mark on you.”

If you are at all familiar with Bill Frisell’s style, you can probably already hear his arrangment of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in your head. It doesn’t stray far from the popular Byrds recording, right down to the 12-string chimes. His cover of “Messin’ with the Kid”, as popularized by Junior Wells, can’t afford to be messed with too much. Come to think of it, there’s probably nothing that can be done to Link Wray’s simple, iconic instrumental “Rumble” that would enhance it. It’s during these times that any mark Frisell wishes to make upon the songs comes down to his band’s energy. Oddly enough, that’s a factor that takes a backseat on a cover of the Chantays’ “Pipeline”. Here Frisell and Leisz pluck out the melody so tentatively, almost avoiding your attention. But one cover that could beautifully pass for a Frisell original is the Beach Boys’s “Surfer Girl”, the b-side to the first 45 that Frisell first purchased. Frisell’s desire to approach the guitar as a vocal instrument motivates the track’s pastoral beauty.

The recordings of the Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant pieces that my friend and I have waiting for come in two tracks, “Reflections from the Moon” and “Bryant’s Boogie”. Everything I said about “Surfer Girl” can be applied to “Reflections from the Moon”. As far as “Bryant’s Boogie” goes, Frisell and his band can keep the toes-a-tappin’ without the speed West and Bryant probably thought necessary. Bassist Tony Scherr picks up the acoustic guitar on the band’s cover of Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser”, another instance where mentally grafting Frisell’s style onto the original gives you a pretty good idea of how it sounds. Drummer Kenny Wollesen feels under-utilized on Guitar in the Space Age!, which is a pity since Bill Frisell himself refers to this quartet as “one of the best bands I’ve ever had.”

Guitar in the Space Age! has only two originals, “The Shortest Day” and “Lift Off”. They show us that, even in the throes of a nostalgia project, Bill Frisell is still a composer to contend with. But we didn’t need to be reminded of that. He has been on a steady roll since leaving his contract with Nonesuch and some recent recordings show us that his sense of creativity is alive and potentially dangerous. But stuff like Guitar in the Space Age! is professionally executed place holding. I’m not saying you have to be a baby boomer to enjoy it, but you probably need to be one in order to rank it as one of Frisell’s top five recordings.

RATING 6 / 10