Bill Frisell sure knows how to keep busy, which is great for fans of his uniquely amazing jazz / blues / Americana / unclassifiable style of guitar playing. By surrounding himself in the ensemble setting with other skilled veterans, Frisell manages to helm some compelling projects, and this one is no exception.
The music performed by Bill Frisell's Big Sur Quintet was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival and composed by Frisell during a stay at Big Sur Land Trust in Monterey, and an album was released last year. The quintet includes Eyvind Kang on viola, Rudy Royston on drums (Kang and Royston also, along with Frisell, round out Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers, whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform last summer), as well as Jenny Scheinman on violin and Hank Roberts on cello (Scheinman and Roberts have also worked with Kang in Frisell's 858 ensemble, ).
Of the many Frisell projects I've enjoyed, Big Sur sees him taking a bit more of a back seat in comparison; much of the material performed by Big Sur is led by the other stringed instruments, and surprisingly little of Frisell's otherworldly technique is showcased. This patience on Frisell's part shows up in the seemingly telepathic way that the group attacks its improvisation, functioning as a singular unit and approaching the themes cohesively. See above and below for short clips of Big Sur Quintet's music from this show.
Frisell, as always, is perpetually touring, with shows coming up over the next few months from coast to coast. January and February have him on the West coast before returning to NYC in mid-March for more Beautiful Dreamers shows at Village Vanguard.
My first time at Village Vanguard, which makes me feel foolish seeing as how frequently Bill Frisell plays multi-nite residencies at this famed venue. Also, embarrassingly, this would be the first time I'd seen Frisell in any capacity since the Tonic days (!), when I saw him perform with his 858 Quartet and John Zorn at a benefit for bassist and longtime collaborator Kermit Driscoll
To me, the music of Bill Frisell somehow manages to incorporate many disparate elements which make American music great. You have all different manners of jazz, warped and mutated blues, huge, sentimental major key anthemics, Copelandesque optimism, and fearless improvisation, often all within the same album or project. Not to mention Frisell's is the most unmistakeably gorgeous guitar tone I've ever heard.
Despite not arriving until just 15 minutes before set time, and with what looked like a full room (capacity 123), I wound up seated literally as close to the stage as physically possible, mere feet away from the hi-hat. (A large support beam stood directly in my line of sight, effectively blocking my view of much of the drum kit, which mattered little considering I was planning on spending the majority of the show rockin' out with my eyes closed.)
In Beautiful Dreamers, Frisell is joined by legendary composer / performer Eyvind Kang on violin, and uber-talented drummer Rudy Royston. I first heard Kang on the Bill Frisell Quartet album, which featured him not only on violin, but tuba as well. I've checked out a few of Kang's projects throughout the years as I've become aware of them, and although I'm far from an expert on his oeuvre, the diversity between his different projects is incredible, including but not limited to avant-garde freakouts, classical scores, soundtracks, and choral pieces, in addition to more grounded, "typical" sounding jazz.
The evening's first piece reminded me quite a bit of the "Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming" / "Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine" pair of songs from Frisell's excellent Blues Dream album - gorgeous, anthemic, and unabashedly sentimental. This segued into a 12-bar blues which reminded me a bit of Phish's version of "Jesus Just Left Chicago," with excellent, tasteful soloing from Frisell.
The second piece was reminscent of some of Frisell's more atonal, itchy work (not as spooky as Richter 858, but more on par with his Quartet project and the Angel Song project to which he contributed), and the rest of the set drifted through several different styles and nimble workouts, with noiser, abstract-sounding stuff butting up against gorgeous doo-wop-derived melodies and bluesy excursions. The set closed with an impressive take on The Beatles' "In My Life," with Frisell and Kang taking three separate stabs at the song's iconic harpsichord solo; once with Frisell alone, once with them mirroring each other, and once with just Kang.
During the set, Kang proved the perfect foil to Frisell's minimalist style, alternately soloing with abandon, mind-melding with Frisell and doubling his parts on some very complex passages, and occasionally providing a steady rhythmic backing with his rich plucking style. And Royston played the holy hell out of his kit, unafraid at times to totally dominate each of the sonic ranges available to him at various points.
I, for one, think this was a fine year for music. I've been called out for giving out too many B+'s amongst my album grades over the last few months, but, if you think about it, it makes sense: at this point, I'm not going out of my way to listen to albums I think are going to be horrible. There are at least, what, 40-50 acts every year that are going to put out albums that I'm going to listen very closely to just based on my previous history enjoying the work of said acts; the rest of the stuff I end up hearing is based on either a (well-informed, I'd like to think) hunch or ideas from friends (usually Beafvy and Bricer). Again, it's not like I'm going around listening to the new Danielson or Grizzly Bear or Best Coast or Vivian Girls or whatever just so I can write something snarky and rubber stamp a "D-" on that garbage. Believe it or not, my time is actually worth more than that.
When 2012 was all said and done, I heard nearly 80 albums, with the final one being the EP Mogwai sneakily released this morning (spoiler alert: it's not worth spending actual money on). The majority of the albums listed below reached double digits in my play count on iTunes.
So, here's the list, unadorned by such frivolities as relevant information about the albums, cover art, or helpful links that would make it easier to locate the individual album reviews, wherever they may be on this site. [EDIT: fixed that.] I'd love to dress this post up and make it a little less bare-bones, but I'll be heading towards JFK in a few short hours, so yer on yer own.
So that's it for now, and I'll check in with y'all before Phish's upcoming 4-night run at MSG (unofficially titled "Four Bros, Four Shows"). HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
Bill Frisell - Solos: The Jazz Sessions -- This album is the "soundtrack" to Original Spin Media's Bill Frisell installment of their Solos series. Haven't seen the DVD, but this recording intersperses brief interviews with unaccompanied, live Frisell performances of some of the finest tunes from his catalog, and it contains some of the most gorgeous music you will hear all year. The interview segments, however brief, are awkward and distracting, however.
Best song: "Wildwood Flower / Poem for Eva."
Dinosaur Jr - I Bet on Sky -- It's not that this is a bad album in the least, it just seems a little phoned in. And don't get me wrong, it has everything we've come to expect from Dino's post-reconciliation output - J's joyously sunny riff-tastic rockers; J's wistful, glowing ballads; J's bashful, sensitive-dude semi-laments; Lou's lumpy and dense songs that stick out like a sore thumb; plenty of effortlessly nimble guitar soloing. But, like their previous Farm (and unlike '07's triumphant return, Beyond), there aren't really any standout tracks on here to sink your teeth into.
Best song: "See It on Your Side."
Swans - The Seer-- Man, people seem to love this. I guess I was hoping for something that would be as immediately accessible as 2010's excellent My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. But fuck me, I really haven't put in the time necessary to fully digest a two-hour double album (includes a 32 minute song, a 23 minute song, and a 19 minute song). If you need me, I'll be listening to (and enjoying) Lonerism for the millionth time so far this week.