Outside at night, three backlit figures stand across the
way. All we can see in the picture are their legs, but their shadows stretch
long across the concrete. The light source shines also on the wheels of a
bicycle, with a smaller shadow of a rider revealed just behind the three pairs
of legs. This back cover photo is a lovely metaphor for the music contained on Beautiful Dreamers – the lights come
towards the music through the players, and it reveals willowy, but elongated
shadow of beauty.
Or perhaps you prefer the front cover, with time lapse
photography making us think we can see these musicians, but they are blurred
beyond easy recognition (though Frisell himself held still long enough for
those who have seen him in person to interpret his face). There are familiar
songs on this album – Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” itself, or the jazz
standard “Tea For Two” or the Carter Family classic “Keep on the Sunny Side” –
but they are blurred a bit. Not really so much that you can’t recognize them,
but enough to make them seem somewhat dreamlike, something just out of focus
from the familiar.
Bill Frisell has been putting his guitar into sinuous
dreamscapes for decades, and he has one of the most instantly recognizable
guitar sounds in any form of music. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing with
distortion, delay, volume pedals, or any number of fluctuations to his basic
approach. Frisell’s touch on the strings cannot be duplicated, and its sound
cannot be lost. Interestingly, there is almost no use of effects on this album;
for once, we get unadulterated Frisell, with just a pure, slightly shimmering
electric tone coming from his fingers to the amp.
He’s joined here by Eyvind Kang, who has traversed the classical,
avant-garde jazz, and even rock worlds in the past, on viola, and by Rudy
Royston on drums. The three musicians are synched up so beautifully throughout
this record that more than once, it’s easy to attribute a nice touch to one
player when it turns out to be another. Royston’s drums are quietly demanding –
he plays with a light feel but a heavy swing, and frequently comes up with
deftly melodic parts to match the others. Frisell and Kang shift swiftly
between unison, counterpoint, and accompaniment.
The tunes – 10 by Frisell, six from assorted outside realms
– are beautiful and evocative. “Winslow Homer,” presumably a tribute to the 19th Century landscape painter, has a nicely off-kilter Thelonious Monk feel to
it. “Beautiful Dreamer” finds Kang meandering
around the familiar melody before Frisell coaxes an unsentimental yet
thoroughly lovely statement of the theme as Kang and Royston insert cautious
comments lest we believe in the dream rather than reality. Blind Willie
Johnson’s “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” gives Kang a chance to prove the blues
can be felt through a viola, and Benny Goodman’s “Benny’s Bugle” shows this
three-piece line-up could generate some jitterbugging energy.
“Better Than a Machine (for Vic Chesnutt)” is a wonderful
tribute to the late singer/songwriter whom Frisell had played with in the past.
It’s the closest thing to a rock song on this unusual jazz record, and it’s
easy to imagine Chesnutt coming up with some intriguing words to match this
melody. “All We Can Do,” another Frisell original, is probably the album’s
other highlight, a dark and intensely quiet piece which showcases the way these
three players move around and within each other’s parts.
Frisell works with a wide variety of regular and occasional
line-ups of musicians. This particular trio has been together off and on for a
couple years, and their familiarity with and close connection to each other is
a delight to hear this first recording as a unit. Really, if you buy one guitar/viola/drums
trio record this year, you should make it this one.
Than a Machine (for Vic Chesnutt),” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “All We Can Do” STEVE