Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bill Frisell’s First Solo Album in 18 Years

courtesy of Sony Music

Yesterday Sony Music released Music IS, a solo album by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. The number of combos in which Frisell has performed and/or led comes close to innumerable; but he has not made a solo album since Ghost Town, which was released by Nonesuch eighteen years ago. The title of the new album has a somewhat amusing backstory. Frisell has made a personal mantra out of the sentence “Music is good,” which he picked up from banjo player Danny Barnes. As he has put it in his own words:
Everything I need to know is that phrase, “Music is Good.” I almost called the album that, but then I thought that it might be too literal. It’s good to leave it open.
Ironically, the titles of the tracks on this new album, many of which have been previously recorded, are about as literal as one can get. Some, such as “Pretty Stars,” could not be more visual. Others, like “The Pioneers,” seem to have been conceived as evocations of familiar genres. Then there are memory pieces that identify either past colleagues (“Ron Carter”) or venues (“Kentucky Derby”).

Frisell seems to have no trouble inventing new melodies. He seems to do it almost every morning, the way many of us would take that time to read the newspaper (or, in this more “contemporary” world, scan our news feeds). All of his tunes get documented on single pages of staff paper. Again, Frisell has his own thoughts about the process:
I don’t know where the melodies come from. I try not to judge anything and just let them be.
After deciding to make a solo recording, Frisell booked himself to play for a week at The Stone in New York. He used those sessions to review all those pieces of staff paper that he had accumulated, finding his own distinctive paths from notation to performance. This prepared him to take his thoughts about performance into a recording studio. What came out of that studio is a collection of sixteen tracks, only a few of which are longer than five minutes in duration. Some are “straight” solos, some involve different forms of electronic processing, and a few are products of mixing multiple tracks.

Taken only on the surface, this album could easily be dismissed as “easy listening” or that blissed-out “new age” style that became associated with Windham Hill Records (whose catalog is now distributed through Sony Music Entertainment). However, for those willing to listen more closely, it should not take long to find the depth of these still waters, a depth that takes in the full richness of issues that arise when one commits to making music. Frisell may have approached Music IS as a sort of personal diary, but it is a diary offering much to learn to anyone willing to commit to giving it a serious reading.

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