Seeing Bill Frisell perform live is an illuminating experience, one in which the true measure of his talent really shines through… this in the face of having been a part of some of the most inventive, massively creative studio recordings of the last handful of decades.
I remember seeing him live at the Boulder Theater in support of his 1996 album Quartet. I loved that album, still do. Perhaps one of my top ten favorite albums ever. I think his quartet performed every track on the album. However, aside from a tear-jerking rendition of “Caffaro’s Theme,” the song I remember most from that night was a rendition of “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins. Frisell took his time revealing the identity of the song. Between his guitar & effects, the trombone of Curtis Fowlkes, the trumpet of Ron Miles, and the tuba & violin of Eyvind Kang, their strangely beautiful sonic concoction only allowed fragments of the melody to drift out, meanwhile creating their blurry version of the original. It wasn’t until several minutes into the performance that Frisell made a definitive statement of the melody. There was an audible reaction from the crowd… gasps, laughter, the ephemera of sound signifying recognition and understanding… and Frisell smiled in response as he continued to play, clearly enjoying the result of his little game of cat-and-mouse with the audience.
He transformed that song even as he respectfully held that melody in his hand. It was a recurring highlight to every Frisell concert I’ve attended since then (which have been many). With each show, there will be at least one instance, sometimes more, of a pop song rendition that Frisell’s group will play coy with, revealing the fullness of the melody only after he’s suitably advanced his impressionistic vision of the original composition. For a while there, I recall he was shaping new versions of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Undoubtedly there have been many others.
His personal style, a mix of jazz and Americana with occasional infusions of looping and effects, makes for intriguing takes on familiar songs. He peppers a song with whimsical and enlightened moments as he reveals facets of the songs that the originals hadn’t touched upon, and he does it with a sense of fun that keeps it from becoming some tedious dissertation on music.
It wasn’t that long ago he released an album of renditions of the music of John Lennon. 2011’s All We Are Saying was a bit uneven of a recording. As a concept, it seemed like a logical decision. The John Lennon songbook was a nice match for Frisell’s style. No matter how far out Frisell takes his renditions, he tethers himself to the melody, and Lennon, well, he knew how to construct a melody.
The question going in on this recording was how close to the originals would Frisell tie himself. The answer is about half and half, with perhaps a little less stretching out than I, personally, would’ve liked.
Frisell had been performing “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” in live performances and his lead-in was an extended improvisation that obscured the song until he suddenly parted the curtains and revealed the melody.
The studio version of this song gets right to the point, which removes some of the fun of hearing a Frisell rendition, but the gradual build-up of this song and its poetic outro basically flips the formula on its head, and the song becomes pleasantly more obscure towards its tail end instead of in the intro. “Nowhere Man” also benefits from Frisell’s strong imagery and his ability to hint at the original without fully revealing its source. He has a talent for wringing the most delicate sounds out of a melody, and he does it here big time.
“Revolution,” on the other hand, represents one of the more unfortunate tunes on the album. It’s a bit too close to the original and adds nothing to replace the absence of vocals, and that leaves Frisell’s version feeling a bit cold. “Beautiful Boy” and “In My Life” fall flat for similar reasons. The studio version of “Across the Universe” also fails to stretch out in the ways Frisell’s live performances take the song to new heights.
The album’s unevenness was understandable. Taking on a single artist’s songbook is going to create the immediate obstacle of vision vs. vision. Two artists, regardless of how open-minded they are, there are going to be unavoidable clashes too great to overcome. No matter how carefully Frisell handpicked songs from the John Lennon songbook, there was simply going to be a couple that refused to submit to his craftsmanship… John Lennon diamonds that would always be a flawed gemstone in the hands of others.
Bill Frisell’s newest album, Guitar in the Space Age! spreads the influences and source material out over a wider spectrum.
The album opens promisingly enough, with a cover of The Shantay’s surf-rock tune “Pipeline.” Surf rock is an area that Frisell could conceivably mine all kinds of little gems in that way his guitar and effects can make a melody shimmer and a rhythm dance with a playful abandon.
But that gets followed with a rendition of “Turn Turn Turn,” an overplayed song that could use a long period of silence before anybody revisits it again. It would be one thing if Frisell offered up some brilliant re-imagining of the song, but that’s not what this album is about… Frisell is celebrating the music that affected and shaped him during his early years. So, naturally, he’s going to play it a bit straighter than he might otherwise. That’s too bad. He takes a similar straight-forward approach to Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With the Kid,” and it, too, suffers for it. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but the word ‘memorable’ will never come into play when describing it.
A cover of the Beach Boys “Surfer Girl” gets Frisell back to territory where he can play a song (relatively) close to the original while adding some creative embellishments that fall into his wheelhouse.
A Link Wray tune (“Rumble”) is an interesting choice considering both artists’ deft use of distortion throughout their respective careers. It’s a nice vehicle for Frisell to tee off on guitar, and it provides a nice bit of contrast with the dreamier surf rock tunes.
The contrast really comes into focus on subsequent track “The Shortest Day,” one of only two Frisell originals on this recording. It weaves a simple serenity out of a winding twisting pattern of melodic fragments. It’s the kind of pragmatic inventiveness that Frisell harnesses to construct brilliant washes of resonant beauty. It’s a feat he accomplishes again, later, on the other original tune, “Liftoff.”
“Rebel Rouser,” “Bryant’s Boogie” and “Cannonball Rag” don’t offer up any real surprises. It’s not difficult to imagine that Frisell is having a ball as he records these songs in the studio, and if you’re someone who feels a nostalgic tug when these songs pour out of the speakers, then you’ll probably have a ball hearing them, too. But nothing about them are memorable. They are the kind of songs used as the penultimate tune to a concert encore… right before the final song that blows the roof off.
The take on Speedy West’s “Reflections From the Moon” gives some insight into the album’s potential. Frisell takes the original’s upbeat lullaby and flips it into a dreamy, almost contemplative reverie. It’s the original song and it’s not. You hear the melody and then you hear its reflection, fading slowly as Frisell bends time to suit his own idea of what the tempo should be. It’s a sonic sleight-of-hand that Frisell has developed a real knack for. It’s a shame he didn’t utilize it more on the recording. His interpretation of the early-period Kinks tune, “Tired of Waiting For Her” also shows what might have been. Frisell embeds the melody into his framework, then begins to warp it and construct competing melodic lines, all bundled up in a shimmery haze and a strong pop music catchiness.
The album ends with a rendition of the Tornado’s hit “Telstar,” and, well, whatever. It’s a pleasant tune.
There will be people out there who will enjoy this track, hell, enjoy the entire album. But when you build a career reputation as an imaginative artist, straight-forward and boring are pretty big sins.
Inventiveness and improvisation are the qualities that allow jazz musicians to take popular songs for such a fun spin. It’s what makes those performances something special, something to remember. It’s also the difference between a rendition and a cover song. Guitar in the Space Age! is an album of cover songs.
I can’t help but wonder if this album would sound better live, freed of the constraints of the studio recording environment. And I also can’t help but think that a musician who always seems to be looking forward, searching for new sounds and following new visions, that his wayward glance back to recapture bits of his past has muted those qualities that made so much of his music so spectacular, and which cemented his deserved reputation as one of the greatest guitarists of our generation.
You can read more about this album on Frisell’s site.
Your album personnel: Bill Frisell (electric guitar), Greg Leisz (pedal steel, electric guitar), Tony Scherr (bass, acoustic guitar), and Kenny Wollesen (drums, percussion, vibes).
Released on Okeh Records.
Music from the Seattle scene.
Available at: Amazon CD | Amazon MP3