Feb 17 2016
When Gods Grow Ordinary: Bill Frisell and “When You Wish Upon a Star”
The massive gift of Bill Frisell’s body of work is the way it inspires the imagination to new heights, new possibilities, new shapes, forms and sounds. There was a time when jaw dropping moments of sheer genius were a frequent thing with a new Frisell recording, as was the sense of excitement of hearing something totally and completely new, unlike anything else that had been created before. These qualities made a great album something more than just the sum of its notes. A certain and undeniable potency was achieved. A new Frisell recording was an experience. It was a door.
There are his individualistic takes on bluegrass and country (Nashville), his inventive solo guitar treatises (Ghost Town), his odd curiosities of unconventional instrumentation and even odder compositions of strangely familiar, ominously alien music (Quartet, History Mystery), his enchanting blend of drone and keen lucidity (In Line), his early-period Age of Industry edgy Americana (This Land) and his later-period haunting yet compassionate Americana (Disfarmer), his inspired take on the vague concept of world jazz (Intercontinentals) and his Naked City works with the John Zorn crew. And that’s not nearly close to all the career highlights. Not all of the recordings in the Frisell discography are top shelf, but in each of those instances, it was easy to hear the formation of new thoughts, new ideas, new concepts that Frisell was learning to shape into something definitive, something poignant, and, ultimately, something that sounded like nothing else on the scene. You could appreciate the seeds because they made it fun to imagine what they might one day look like in full bloom.
But after a stretch where Frisell was locked into his singular and seriously intoxicating Americana form of expression, he now seems to have stopped looking forward to the next new thing and is caught in a holding pattern of nostalgia and The Past. In and of itself, looking back is not a bad thing. Often, it can lead to wonderful new developments, as the eye and the ear and the imagination interpret hazy memories with the sensory lens honed from time and experience and leading to wondrous new interpretations of what has come before. But his previous recording, 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age, didn’t really do that. It was more homage to the rock music Frisell enjoyed during his youth. It was something he’d done before, and with greater success, on his John Lennon tribute album, All We Are Saying. Guitar in the Space Age was basically a covers album. And lacking any of the typical Frisell innovation, the recording fell flat. It wasn’t bad. There were things about the recording to enjoy. But, really, the music felt locked in a physical cage when held up in comparison to the surreal, imaginative work that typified his creative arc. A photograph of a beautiful scene can leave one breathless, but the imagery will always pale in comparison to that same scene played out in a vivid dream… that’s where the ineffable and unspeakable color the experience and open up vast new horizons.
Frisell’s new album When You Wish Upon a Star is a wide awake, very pragmatic and methodical recording, and that’s why it comes off as quite ordinary.
The two-part take on the soundtrack to the movie Psycho displays simultaneously the album’s strength and the wide gap from what it could’ve been, should’ve been. The first installment is frenetic and harried and when vocalist Petra Haden joins in with some vocal harmonics, the song could serve either as an obtuse depiction of the movie’s violence or a clever take on Norman Bates’ blithe, furious insanity. The second part puts to good use violist Eyvind Kang as a mirror to the original soundtrack’s dramatic utilization of strings. It’s also to be found in the quintet’s expression of a swaying, lullaby serenity, illustrating, perhaps, the eye-of-the-storm world Bates lived in and the oppressive threat of death that envelops all of the movie’s characters. Part One is fun, Part Two is gorgeous, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been heard before. And of greater importance, providing pleasant translations of the work of others comes off as a step or three removed from the territory where Frisell should be treading.
It’s worth noting that you can pretty much count on hearing a cover song or two when catching Frisell live… and it’s often one of the show highlights. But in the live setting, he isn’t bogged down by a studio environment and a recording itinerary and all of the baggage that comes with creating an album… including thoughts regarding its production and how it will be sold and promoted and all of those things that can poison the well of creativity. If Frisell, on stage, performs a version of “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” it will likely be in a way that you’ve never heard before and may become your favorite version of the song ever… opening up aspects of the song that even the original composers and performers hadn’t envisioned. But so much of that is lacking on his studio albums that exclusively dig into the songbooks of others.
Petra Haden also sits in for the James Bond soundtrack’s “You Only Live Twice.” It’s actually quite beautiful, and the symbiosis between Frisell and Haden shows the benefit of their past work, because a song that isn’t particularly interesting and which they keep pretty close to the original is one of the album’s highlights. Haden achieves a sense of drama without ever being pushy or giving the impression that she’s trying for fireworks, yet her voice resonates with some serious strength while it melts into the lovely accompaniment of Frisell’s guitar and Kang’s viola. In a live setting, with the ability to stretch out, it’s probably a song that would blow the roof off the joint… but on this recording, it’s just a really nice tune. It’s not wrong to want more than that… not when Frisell has provided more so many many times previous.
Yes, he really does perform a take on the theme to “Bonanza.” Yeah, it’s kind of cool, and I’m sure it’ll draw some cheers from the cheap seats, but, y’know, whatever. It’s not something that incites a person walk away thinking about how big the world is and ponder the unlimited vastness of human imagination. It’s not even something that’ll get you to look forward to the next song.
Speaking of covers performed live… Frisell absolutely kills the song “Moon River” live. I’ve heard him perform it with a number of different ensembles and solo, and each time he conjures up that melody, he makes me fall in love with the song all over again. He and Haden perform a restrained, tasteful version of it on this recording. It doesn’t really draw anything resembling sparks, but simple and straight-forward, ironically, are quite a bit different from his other renditions, so it’s something that’s easy to appreciate when viewed in the Frisell timeline. But this version, judged on its own merits, just sort of sits there. It lacks gravitas.
At this point, it’s practically cliche to record an Ennio Morricone cover. Unfortunately, Frisell decides to triple up on his newest. Worse, their take on the theme to “Once Upon a Time in the West” is tedious. “As a Judgment” fares much better. Frisell and crew really dive into the Morricone ambiance and sound like they’re having fun playing the song. “Farewell to Cheyenne” falls somewhere in the middle of those two. There are times when it flirts with breaking out into something different, which is promising, but then it typically lands right where the original would indicate it should, which doesn’t really do much for anyone.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of the creative backsliding is the album’s sole rendition of a Frisell original composition. “Tales From the Far Side” was originally used in a Gary Larson short film, but more relevantly, it was also the opening track to Frisell’s powerfully imaginative 1996 recording Quartet. The original, performed by Frisell, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, violinist Eyvind Kang and trumpeter Ron Miles is about as magnetic a tune as you’ll ever encounter. Melodically, it’s highly charged but lets the electricity loose in long, gorgeous sighs and the occasional burst of voltage. This, plus how absolutely different it sounded from anything else he’d done previously or anything that anybody was doing elsewhere lofted this song up, and the entire album, to a new plateau. It was a statement. On his newest recording? Not nearly. Not even close.
Their rendition of title-track “When You Wish Upon a Star” lacks any kind of defining characteristic. It sounds ready-made for a cafe latte experience during your next visit to Starbucks. Frisell and crew also do drive-bys on the themes to The Godfather, Happy Trails, and The Bad and the Beautiful, but there’s no sense going over any of those. At this point it just feels like piling on. Some of the tracks work better than others. None have a fatal flaw. None are “bad music.” But Frisell set the bar much higher long ago, and exceeded it repeatedly, so pretty good ain’t gonna earn anyone extra credit.
The album begins with a two-part “To Kill a Mockingbird” bit of Americana. The soft crash of Rudy Royston’s cymbals as Frisell and Kang and bassist Thomas Morgan weave intertwining melodic patterns like fireflies around a beam of moonlight carries some weight. It gives the impression that the music possesses substance, that there’s reason to think that perhaps this album might do something magical. It doesn’t. All it does is compel me to gather up older Frisell CDs and binge on some music nostalgia of my own… to be inspired by his older works, to fire up the imagination and be reminded of why Bill Frisell deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest guitarists of this generation.
Your album personnel: Bill Frisell (electric & acoustic guitars), Eyvind Kang (viola), Thomas Morgan (bass), Rudy Royston (drums, percussion) and Petra Haden (voice).
Released on Okeh Records.
Available at: Amazon
February 17, 2016 @ 12:37 pm
Thanks for posting this review. In fact, it is so much more than a review. It is a clear, concise and colorful (in your own excellent way) look at the recent album spun through the prism and filter of work by an artist that we both agree is so head and shoulders above the pack. Yet, who, for whatever reason, seems to be digging a different groove of late. I know you do not like to right negative reviews and for what it’s worth I totally agree (and support!) that preference. I am guessing this is the closest you can possibly or will likely come to a “negative” review of an album—and to be fair you point out the few notable and distinguishable positives that are present, and I agree with all the ones you shared. This does seem to be a curious time for Bill. I too miss the absolute feeling of excitement and wonder of new releases, or as you say:
“There was a time when jaw dropping moments of sheer genius were a frequent thing with a new Frisell recording, as was the sense of excitement of hearing something totally and completely new, unlike anything else that had been created before. These qualities made a great album something more than just the sum of its notes. A certain and undeniable potency was achieved. A new Frisell recording was an experience. It was a door.”
Beautifully said, shared, and totally agree. If my memory serves me correctly, your go-to Frisell album (when a Frisell fix is the only cure!) is the *Quartet* album. That album was my gateway to the Frisell catalog and I still listen to it frequently. My own version is *Solos: The Jazz Sessions.* Why? Because, for me (and it is definitely subjective) so much of the music on that release is otherworldly and layered with his own unique sense of melody, space, and time. It is a perfect distillation of so much of what I love about Bill’s approach and process of creating music. As you point out, he has so many fantastic releases. Fortunately, for me, I am not sure he could ever spend the capital that he has earned, solidly, fairly, in my musical bank, but I hope with every new release to find that welcome and wanted sense of surprise, wonder, and unique beauty that is a new Frisell release. I am guessing, perhaps, we are both waiting for the same thing. Till the next one we can swim in the deep waters of so many of his previous and excellent releases. Enjoy!
February 17, 2016 @ 6:20 pm
That’s awesome that the Solos album is your favorite. I’ve had a draft sitting in my queue since that album first came out that I keep meaning to really dig into and finish off. It’s been awhile since I listened to it, but if I recall my initial opinion correctly, I thought it really epitomized so much of Frisell’s talent… just in a seriously pared-down environment. But that there was something encapsulating about that recording of Frisell’s career that would appeal to a big-time Frisell fan, but would also appeal to a newbie to his music. It’s not one of my favorite Frisell recordings, but I’ve always thought that there was something very special about the Solos recording… and special in a way different than his other stuff.
Thanks again for stopping by to shoot the breeze. Your comment really made my day.
February 17, 2016 @ 8:57 pm
Dave, I’ve felt much of what you and Greg have felt since Bill’s switch to Okeh Records. These albums seem to be pursuing a more commercial, accessible direction. I hope that phase ends sooner than later and that he gives us more of his real genius.
Frisell has hardly lost it, however. If you listen to him on the new Charles Lloyd album, I Long to See You, he makes a huge contribution to songs such as Masters of War.
Which reminds me, I created a playlist of “Bill Frisell as sideman” and he plays on some of the best albums in the past 25 years, such as Bass Desires (Marc Johnson), Going Back Home (Ginger Baker), Angel Song (Kenny Wheeler) and many others. So if we don’t see more adventurous albums by him, we can always look forward to more stellar sideman dates. – Cheers, Robert
P.S.The Frisell album that always does it for me is “Gone Just Like a Train”
February 18, 2016 @ 12:29 am
I don’t know enough about how much Okeh does or doesn’t insinuate themselves into the recording process, but to my ears, most of the albums they’ve released since they began operations again a couple years ago have sounded flat and unfocused. We talk about how various labels have a prevailing “sound” as described in one word. For instance, ECM’s would be “austere,” Clean Feed Records would be “dissonant,” etc. If I had to come up with one for the new Okeh, it would be “neutered.” I’ve been highly disappointed by many of their releases… many of which, IMO, should have been top-shelf. But again, I really don’t know if there’s cause and effect here… I’m simply pointing out an obvious correlation.
And Frisell has definitely not lost his stuff. In addition to his work on Blue Note, I’ve been very much enchanted by his recent releases on the Tzadik label. In fact, one of those recordings, “The Mysteries,” received a top ten slot on my Best of 2013 list. As far as older side-man recordings go, lately I’ve been revisiting Marc Johnson’s “Sound of Summer Running.”
P.S. Gone, Just Like a Train has a rendition of one of my favorite Frisell comps, “Egg Radio.” I think I saw Frisell two, maybe three different times live in support of that recording.
P.P.S. Really enjoyed Lloyd’s “Wild Man Blues,” too. Kind of nice to see the Lloyd+Blue Note Records match working so very well.
February 18, 2016 @ 7:44 pm
On a side note, I’m now reading Lloyds biography, which is fascinating. It answers so many of my questions about his life and musical progress. He had some really interesting comments about how most music contracts being mostly about slavery! So when he came back in 1989, he looked around for a label and found that ECM was very different. I’ll be interested in what new albums he’ll put out on BlueNote. I’m sure he’s got a good contract!