Listening to Bill Frisell properly for the first time recently, I could only conclude: How on earth did his work pass me by for so long? An incredibly versatile guitarist and composer equally at home in jazz, blues, avant-pop and alt-country, Frisell’s work evinces a sense of humour and playfulness which strongly suggests that he is one of that rare breed who has never lost site of music’s phenomenal capacity for surprise. ‘Surprise’ is numero uno of my requirements of any new music and yet – apart from being vaguely aware of him through contributions to other artists’ albums or sole tracks on compilations – I had somehow never listened to an entire Frisell album until last September.
My entry-point to his solo recordings was unusual, and I am not sure that the album I have selected for this blog, Big Sur, is representative of his catalogue – but then given the diversity of his work, it might not even be possible to identify such an all-bases-covered single Frisell release. But at the very least, it does contain some magnificently inventive compositions as well as hinting at the remarkable amount of ground that the Baltimore-born musician has covered in his 40-plus years as a professional player.
I was led to Big Sur by a geographical/musical association, specifically The Dharma at Big Sur, a composition for solo electric violin and orchestra by US minimalist composer John Adams. Inspired by what Adams described as “the so-called ‘shock of recognition’” when one reaches the Californian coast that he has long called home, The Dharma at Big Sur is a cumulatively powerful piece with a substantial emotional pull. Encountering the composition for the first time during an excellent BBC documentary about Adams five or six years ago, it engendered an abiding fascination with his work, which to me is frequently more varied and emotionally resonant than that of the other leading US minimalist composers, notably Steve Reich and Philip Glass, to whom he is so often compared. But even after wading through his many operas and other standalone compositions, The Dharma at Big Sur remains my favourite, and the Nonesuch Records CD on which it appears – paired with the appealingly fractured and disconcerting My Father Knew Charles Ives, composed in honour of another great of contemporary American music – is highly recommended.
But listening to Adams led to a general immersion in literature and music relating to Big Sur, and it was through this process that I stumbled upon Frisell’s album, released by the OKeh label in 2013. The title is no mere moniker as its 18 tracks were composed during the time Frisell spent in a cabin at a remote ranch on the Big Sur coastline, having been asked by the Monterey Jazz Festival to compose his reactions to the landscape. The resulting album – spanning surf-pop, country twang, atmospheric blues, hushed near-chamber music and more – attests to that landscape’s drama and variety, but in so doing also tells us much about Frisell’s slant on American music per se. It can and should ‘encompass multitudes’ (to paraphrase Walt Whitman), and more to the point you can have a hell of a lot of fun if you don’t hold fast to genre lines.
If Big Sur whets your appetite, then there is a whole lotta Frisell waiting for you to explore. As of January 2018 I would estimate that I have listened to about a third of his official recorded output, hence it would be unfair to select overriding favourites at this stage. But from those I have heard, 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age! – which features often dazzling interpretations of songs and instrumentals from the 1960s – is utterly joyful, whilst 1997’s Angel Song – which is credited to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler but features Frisell throughout as part of a fine quartet completed by bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Lee Konitz – is a modern jazz album of gorgeously unusual arrangements.
However much I listen to Frisell – and it’s been a great deal these past few months – I don’t feel I am much closer to being able to define him as a musician or composer. But that’s all to the good as it keeps me keen to explore other pieces, and eager to hear what he will come up with next – and one suspects that that’s exactly how Frisell likes it.