Bill Frisell ‘Music Is’ 2LP/CD/DIG (OKeh/Music On Vinyl) 4/5

Guitarist Bill Frisell has been a major figure on the international jazz scene for the last thirty years or so and has recorded for labels as prestigious as ECM, Nonesuch and now OKeh/Sony. His own childhood and musical roots are in the American heartland of country and folk music, and it is the combination of these genres with improvised music that has made him one of the most distinctive and enjoyable guitarists around. In recent years, Frisell, moreover, has found the time to duet on some wonderful jazz meets world roots recording as well as covering the music of John Lennon among several other one-off projects. Here, on this new recording, however, he is very much on his own, acting as a multi-instrumentalist on electric and acoustic guitars, loop, bass, and even ukelele. The lovely opener, ‘Pretty Stars’ lays down the standard for the album as a whole with the emphasis firmly placed on musicality. A simple repetitive riff is added to with the overdubbed second guitar playing off one another. Frisell avoids the potential trap of becoming too technically detached from the music itself and instead lays down some deeply melodic lines. Folk music hues predominate with the gorgeous folk-tinged lyricism of, ‘Thankful’, a highlight as is the similarly themed, ‘The Pioneers’. One piece is dedicated to a musician that Bill Frisell has previously performed with on, ‘Ron Carter’, and this serves as the pretext for a duet between Frisell the guitarist and bassist, and in the process adopting the persona of a latter day George Benson, or say Wes Montgomery, and that adds some tasty soul-blues licks to proceedings.

Another dimension to this solo recording is the more experimental side that Frisell is eager to participate in. This is exemplified on a piece such as, ‘What Do You Want?’, where a simple folk-based theme is then added to with layered texture in the background, and then a metronomic ‘tick-tock’ sound is created on top of that. If the album departs at all, then it is surely on the rock-tinged, ‘Think About It’, where Frisell sounds as though he has been listening to Neil Young from his Crazy Horse period. Two versions of the piece, ‘Rambler’, receive contrasting interpretations. On the former, the more experimental side of Frisell is showcased, with the use of loops. This writer much prefers the second, pared down reading, where the guitarist is in gentle, reflective mood, and that better suits the album.

Post ECM, Bill Frisell’s work has been as inventive as ever and this album succeeds on at least two levels: offering challenging music on the one hand; still retaining a warm human touch on the other. Recording on his own seems to have freshened up the Frisell sound and now a veteran of the jazz scene. He is less interested in blowing you away with his virtuosity and far more focused on creating beautiful music, which he does here with customary aplomb.

Tim Stenhouse