Jazz CD Reviews

Bill Frisell – Big Sur – Okeh

Guitarist Bill Frisell takes a trip to the coast and brings back some sonic snapshots.

Published on June 18, 2013

Bill Frisell – Big Sur – Okeh

Bill Frisell – Big Sur – Okeh [Dist. by Sony Masterworks] 88883 71738 2, 64:25 *****:

(Bill Frisell – guitar; Eyvind Kang – viola; Hank Roberts – cello; Jenny Scheinman – violin; Rudy Royston – drums)

Guitarist Bill Frisell has been inspired by many facets during his multi-decade career, from John Lennon (All We Are Saying, 2011) to silent cinema (Go West: Music for the Films of Buster Keaton, 1995), from classic pop (The Sweetest Punch: The Songs of Costello and Bacharach, 1999) to outsider art (Disfarmer, 2009). Frisell’s newest foray is the often-meditative Big Sur, on Sony’s resurrected Okeh label. Frisell’s compositions overtly reference his short stays along the central California coastal stretch, an area which has stimulated previous musicians (composer John Adams and jazz artist Charles Lloyd); writers (Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac) and contemporary pop music makers such as the Beach Boys and Death Cab for Cutie.

Big Sur was kick-started by a 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival commission, which included Frisell’s residency at the isolated Glen Deven Ranch, where Frisell wrote the melodies which formed the foundation for the 19 tracks which make up his latest album. After soaking in the splendor and serenity, and filling notebooks with musical ideas, Frisell brought his New Big Sur Quintet together at the same location: the ensemble comprises his Beautiful Dreamers trio (drummer Rudy Royston and violist Eyvind Kang) alongside his 858 Quartet (violinist Jenny Scheinman, Kang, and cellist Hank Roberts). Essentially, this is an unconventional strings quintet with drums. The group premiered Frisell’s commissioned work at the September, 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival and six months later producer Lee Townshend supervised the recording at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios. The result is 64 minutes which blend country, folk, jazz, classical, and rock: a characteristic Frisell mélange of non-typical material.

There are homages aplenty strewn throughout. Frisell states, “This quintet feels like family. It’s about how we’re connected.” That intuitive communication borne from lengthy hours on tour and in studios can be sensed on the country-tinged “Sing Together Like a Family,” which has the same kind of close-knit camaraderie which permeated the Carter Family’s music. Frisell’s guitar slowly unfurls a pragmatic melodic line, underscored by viola, cello and violin, while Royston gently goads on his kit. The sprightly “The Big One” has a surf-suffused big beat, which suggests Dick Dale, the Ventures and other surf-rock pros: listening to Frisell bend notes on electric guitar while supported by a swinging string trio is quite an ear-opening occurrence. At the opposite spectrum is the tranquil and concise contemplation “We All Love Neil Young,” a soothing guitar/viola duet which hints at Young’s quieter songs such as “A Man Needs a Maid”: the tribute is not solely musical, because Young’s ranch home is near La Honda, up the coast from Monterey. The edgy “Walking Stick” is dedicated to Glen Deven Ranch caretaker and ranch manager Jim Cox (who provided the aforementioned stick to Frisell): the jazzy piece has a folkish underlining and an idiosyncratic, fluctuating rhythm marked off by both Royston and the strings. Another musical pat on the back can be heard on the blissful ballad “Song for Lana Weeks,” which is bequeathed to the director of philanthropy for the Big Sur Land Trust, which oversees the Glen Deven Ranch.

Geography and natural surroundings imbue other pieces. “Going to California” is a measured, forebodingly shaded ballad with Frisell’s tidy tone and tiers of lightly overdriven tremolo at the head. The brief “Animals” has a dark, Celtic-hued arrangement and is an interesting contrast to the swirling and brighter-tinted “Hawks,” which is lifted by the up-drafted string section. The sinuous “Highway 1” steadily but quirkily progresses, and contains a witty discourse between Scheinman and Kang, while Frisell offers dissonant harmony via understated effects.  The alternatingly luminescent “A Beautiful View” showcases Frisell’s thoughts as he stared across the gorgeous vista to the far horizon. The title track has a classical music core accentuated by Roberts’s cello, which upsurges to the summit of the tune, as Frisell amplifies the aptly winding melody, counterpointed by Scheinman and Kang’s rising and sliding harmonies. This cut is one of the album’s most placid creations. All of the material has subtle continuity, including a five-note guitar vamp which periodically reappears, and this hour-long project is best experienced as a whole, rather than heard piecemeal. Long-time producer Townshend and engineer Adam Blomberg (who has worked with Frisell since 2005) do their usual great job with Frisell’s music: his distinctive tone, audio coloring and refined harmonics are rendered with clarity; the delicate moments from the strings are exquisitely delivered; and the few bits of dissonance are dynamically supplied. While the instrumental mix organically shifts, sometimes unexpectedly, such improvisational inclinations never outshine the overall ambiance.

While Frisell’s music on Big Sur clearly has a visual or cinematic awareness, this release also has ancillary film/video which should be seen: Frisell’s daughter, photographer Monica Jane Frisell, created a black and white video for “A Beautiful View,” shot in the shaky style of a Super 8 home movie. There is also a 15-minute, in-depth, behind-the-scenes promo film (with chapter stops that have humorous animation), which includes Frisell and Townshend interviews; studio footage; a ghostly video for “Animals”; and assorted slices from other compositions: well worth investigating.

TrackList: The Music of Glen Deven Ranch; Sing Together Like a Family; A Good Spot; Going to California; The Big One; Somewhere; Gather Good Things; Cry Alone; The Animals; Highway 1; A Beautiful View; Hawks; We All Love Neil Young; Big Sur; On the Lookout; Shacked Up; Walking Stick (for Jim Cox); Song for Lana Weeks; Far Away.

—Doug Simpson




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