24. Perfecting one’s style

Rag. From Bill Frisell, This Land, 1992.

Here’s another player who needs no recommendation from me. The most influential guitar player of the last decades? Probably. Certainly one of those who has given me most pleasure – and (usually) continues to fascinate, especially in his duos with Thomas Morgan.

There’s a big backlog of recordings, though, so this old highlight is worth some more cheers three decades on. Much as I love the man, the work has been at times uneven. There are records since I’d happily live without. And I did once fall properly asleep during a Frisell gig at the Barbican. (That’s not a critical comment particularly: I have been sleeping to music regularly since I was about 12 though, admittedly, rarely during live shows).

Much of the later work finds him digging deeper and deeper into songs he heard when much younger. That’s not a problem either. His conviction seems to be that if you liked it decades ago, and still do, then it may have some lasting value: pretty much the premise of this little series. But I do think the work from this period, toward the end of his magical trio with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll, was special. This was the last of a series of CDs they made, and is usually paired with Have a Little Faith, recorded the same year, as the best of the bunch. The guitarist had already begun working in trio with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, in what became for me one of the greatest improvising units of the time, but I think it had passed me by at this point. These were the first Frisell records that really made me sit up and take notice.

They are, I suppose, mid-period Frisell. He was 40-ish, and had made a bunch of records in bands put together for ECM sessions as well as earlier ones in this sequence for Electra Nonesuch. But I think of these as the ones where his mature style really came together. That’s true of the material – Faith is all other people’s tunes, and cheerfully ropes in Copland (the entire Billy the Kid suite), Sousa, Dylan, Charles Ives, Sonny Rollins, Muddy Waters and Madonna. This Land, though equally eclectic sounding, is all his own compositions. And in those days he did seem to write, well, I don’t know how to put it more helpfully than to say particularly tuneful tunes. Rag, is a great example. It’s highly organised – a live trio version follows this quite complex arrangement precisely – but, thanks to the always marvellous Baron and Driscoll, and the other players, sounds as loose and swinging as you could wish for.

And those other players are part of the making of the sound, and the record, in a way they hadn’t quite been before, as well. The sprightly sound of Don Byron on clarinet comes in from Faith, but instead of Guy Klucevsek on accordion we have two more horns, Billy Drewes on alto sax and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. All three are indispensible to the group sound here. And while I do love Frisell solo and in duo, his guitar palette is even more brilliantly effective when set alongside a few orchestrally imagined horns like this. The thought comes listening to these discs it’s something he might have done more of over the years.

But still, there is always the guitar. And Rag as a tune is also a good example of Frisell’s style, and why it’s been so fertile. I’ve tried to describe what makes it intriguing before, and some words I came up with after a show about ten years back seem to apply here as well, so let me – ahem – quote myself.

The spooky mythical-American dreamscape… had all the hallmarks of what I think of as his mature style, which emerged, I guess, from the late 1980s. He makes good-humoured, open-hearted music, hinting broadly at cheesiness but with an implied knowing wink. 

[A] facility to switch fluidly between modes and moods, with equal commitment to each, is part of the fun. As ever, Frisell is a master of guitar effects, and a cunning user of dynamics. There is never a dull moment. Critically, you could probably write a book about a Frisell set. Dichotomies abound: Urban/rural, simple/complex, traditional/avant garde, tonal/atonal, primitive/postmodern, genre/pastiche would all get a chapter. My take is that he makes elements of the avant garde palatable for those who might not partake, mainly through being warm and approachable, sharp and spiky by turns. But never too much of either.

That was a live set at Cheltenham, but looking back I reckon I was sort of writing about these two discs as well. It’s that constantly teasing combination of elements that all the players on these sessions embraced so completely that made me listen to them so many times I still remember just about every note, and still want to hear them all again regularly. Pure delight every time.

Full album

You can also buy the MP3s from Nonesuch here.

Why the No 24? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.

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