Bill Frisell – “Sign of Life”

The last time Bill Frisell recorded an album with the 858 ensemble, things were a bit noisier.  The 2002 recording Richter 858 had Frisell substituting jet engines for amps, and let the compositions not so much speak for themselves as growl and roar.  Sign of Life shows that there was a heartbeat just behind all the fury and fuel of Richter.

Bill Frisell - "Sign of Life"

Different sound; same ensemble.  Bill brings his incomparable voice on guitar, and long-time collaborators Jenny Scheinman on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, and Eyvind Kang on viola.

As with any inventive musician, Frisell’s sound has evolved over the years.  His current phase is often referred to as Americana Jazz, a blending of jazz aspirations and conventions within a folk framework.  Sign of Life fits snugly into that label, comparable to other recent releases like the excellent Disfarmer, the perfectly acceptable Beautiful Dreamer, and the under-the-radar All Hat. It’s an album of languid back porch tunes, of foreboding compositions echoing over desolate Appalachian trails, of lush stringed instruments that is alternatingly soothing, threatening, and transcendent.

858 Quartet

Two tracks from Sign of Life

Good string ensembles force the absence of drums and percussion to go unnoticed, but the best ones provide their own percussive elements and make the issue of absence a moot point.  Frisell’s 858 quartet falls under the latter category, and it’s one of the many admirable traits of this album.

Two criticisms I can see getting leveled at Sign of Life:  One, it’s not jazz, and two, it sounds like most of the stuff he’s done lately.  As to the first point, I really don’t care.  Seriously, I just don’t feel like getting into some territorial pissing contest over what jazz is and isn’t.  Quite honestly, I can see both the big-tent and small-tent sides of the argument; it’s just not an argument I’m interested in entertaining on an album review.  Mostly I just care if an album is inventive and beautiful and fun to listen to.  It hits all those notes for me, so I’m moving on.  As to the second point, yes, it does sound like a lot of the albums Frisell has put out lately, and for that, I’m glad.  There was a stretch of time where Frisell’s sound varied dramatically from album to album, and it always left me wishing that he hadn’t moved on to the next sound so soon, that he had spent more time exploring that current sound, took it in several different directions, investigated all of its different facets.  Well, it appears I’ve got my wish.

Sign of Life does sound like many of Frisell’s other Americana Jazz albums and yet it doesn’t.  When I feel like listening to a Frisell Americana album, I’ll have several to choose between, yet there will be a time and place for Sign of Life, just as there is a time and place for Disfarmer and All Hat and Beautiful Dreamer.  And for the record, it’s sizing up to be that the time and place for Sign of Life will be in the afternoon, when that damn winter sun starts dropping in the sky waaaay sooner than it ought to and way before I’m ready for nighttime to drop the curtain over the view from my writing room.

When talking of the best jazz releases of 2011, it deserves some votes.

Sign of Life clocks in at just under an hour of music that’s sometimes peaceful, sometimes introspective, sometimes joyous, sometimes ominous, but always beautiful throughout.  Released on the Savoy Jazz label in 2011.

Here’s a link to the Frisell site’s radio, which streams the first 5 songs from the album

Here’s a link to Bill Frisell’s site where you can watch a making-of-album video.

Here’s a link to the Savoy Jazz site, where it appears to have pretty much the same content on the Frisell site, but some additional news.