STAR GAZING: Bill Frisell

Frisell band

On his latest album the master jazz guitarist enriches several chamber-music-like thematic “suites” drawn from the scores of Boomer-favorite films in small ways and with unexpected notes, chords and solos that burrow into the melody without ever subsuming it.

 BY STEVEN ROSEN

The virtuosic electric-guitar instrumentalists, be they rock, blues or jazz, tend to emphasis speed and volume as a way to justify being the center of attraction. And they often slip into wretched excess because of it.

Bill Frisell, the (primarily) jazz musician who has released enough albums as a soloist, collaborator, band member or guest artist to fill a record store, has avoided that trap by stressing the song first and then thinking how he can quietly, subtly, smartly enrich it. He does so in small ways and with unexpected notes, chords and solos that burrow into the melody without ever subsuming it.

Frisell

That’s been his technique throughout a series of recent themed albums like Guitar in the Space Age! (early rock ‘n’ roll songs) and Disfarmer (meditations on a mysterious American portrait photographer).

Bill Frisell 1-29

The latest, When You Wish Upon a Star, continues that approach with some differences. It consists of several chamber-music-like thematic “suites” drawn from the scores of Boomer-favorite films like To Kill a Mockingbird, Psycho and Once Upon a Time in the West, alternating with classic movie songs (“The Shadow of Your Smile,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Moon River” and the title tune).

There are also a couple light touches – a version of the Bonanza TV theme and the closing “Happy Trails,” the Dale Evans-composed theme from cowboy Roy Rogers’ TV show

While Frisell always makes the perfect choice as to the way to use his guitar to add color and texture to the material, he surrounds himself with fine instrumental help from violist Eyvind Kang, drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Thomas Morgan. Their nine-minute excerpt from “The Godfather” is good enough to wish they’d play the score live at screenings. Lee Townsend produced the album impeccably.

And Frisell uses a past collaborator, vocalist Petra Haden (daughter of the late virtuosic jazz bassist Charlie Haden) to sing the familiar songs, wonderfully, and to use her voice wordlessly as another instrument on some of the other selections. Her vocal phrasing joined with Frisell’s guitar phrasing is a match made in movie heaven.

Haden has already released her own similar album, 2013’s Petra Goes to the Movies. She also has joined Frisell, Morgan and drummer Paul Motian for “The Windmills of Your Mind,” and previously performed “Moon River” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” on a duets album with Frisell.

That does raise a criticism of this disc – some of the material is a little safe and overly familiar for the musicians. Still, jazz musicians – and also classical musicians and vocal interpreters – constantly rework the standards, adding insight and nuance to what they do. That’s part of the tradition of popular music. Frisell adds to it nicely here.

Bill Frisell is currently on tour; dates at his official website.

 

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