Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Frisell On The Side

Guitarist Bill Frisell has frequently recorded as a guest or sideman on other people's records, often going far afield of the jazz he's so well known for (Allen Ginsberg, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Paul Simon, Renee Fleming, etc.).

At one time, Frisell's sideman records were the best way to hear all that the guitarist was capable of. With many of his own records since the mid 1990s displaying strong originals, strong groups and exceptional leadership, that is no longer the case.

But what emerges on so many of his guest appearances is that Frisell is an exceptionally gifted accompanist. He has a way of making other leaders sound like they've never sounded elsewhere, often better.

One also discovers how, even early on, Frisell's playing is so commanding that he can take other people's music and make it all his own. That's not to say he's domineering. No good accompanist can be anything less than democratic. But more often than not he provides the stamp of originality that makes a composition or an idea into a song or a statement.

While there are probably hundreds of discs to consider here, several of Frisell's guest appearances stand out in the crowd. I've tried to keep to the ones where Frisell features throughout most of the program, not just on several tunes on any given disc.

Bass Desires: Marc Johnson (ECM, 1985): Bassist Marc Johnson made a name for himself in Bill Evans's last - and most well-recorded - trio. Young as he was at the time, he proved that he knew the language and had many of his own interesting ideas to add to the mix. Bass Desires furthers that belief. Johnson's debut under his own name is a quartet disc led by two highly distinctive guitars, Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Johnson's opening track, "Samurai Hee-Haw" is immediately memorable and sets the stage for the strong program that follows, namely John Coltrane's "Resolution," (drummer on the date) Peter Erskine's "Bass Desires" and Johnson's "Mojo Highway." Frisell, who had also worked with Johnson on keyboardist Lyle Mays eponymous album (Geffen, 1985), often helms the guitar synthesizer here and contrasts nicely with Scofield. Both guitarists had, at this point, developed a very distinctive identity, which is clearly heard here, and their sounds mix well together. All four participants really buy into the program, making for a most cohesive and interesting collective. They'd reform two years later for Second Sight (ECM, 1987), but unfortunately the lightning didn't strike twice. It seemed more like a collection of strong personalities by that time than the wonderful group effort Bass Desires presents.

Bill Evans: Paul Motian (JMT, 1990): The Paul Motian-Bill Frisell-Joe Lovano triumvirate has been around since 1981 and still exists today. This trio has recorded numerous discs since It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago (ECM, 1984) up to and including Time And Time Again (ECM, 2007) - both oddly titled discs involving time - but none more stirring, consequential and as beautiful as this loving tribute to Motian's former boss (1955-63), pianist Bill Evans. Bill Evans adds another of the pianist's former partners (1979-80), bassist Marc Johnson, to the mix and his warm patterns add something especially breathtaking to the program. Frisell has the thankless task of filling in for Evans as the chordal accompanist (Lovano naturally dominates the heads) and he succeeds masterfully. This is probably the loveliest Frisell has ever sounded. Here he reveals not only an innate understanding of the pianist's remarkably memorable compositions but a great affection for the sensitivity each requires. Only the first two volumes of Motian's On Broadway series (with Charlie Haden on bass) approach the magnificence this trio caught here with Marc Johnson on Bill Evans. Reissued in 2003 on Winter & Winter.

A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing: Jerry Granelli (Evidence, 1992): Nothing in Jerry Granelli's past suggested this interesting, one-off ensemble recording. Despite working with jazzers as diverse as Earl Hines, Ornette Coleman, Denny Zietlin and Mose Allison, Granelli's best-known gig is as the drummer on all of those Peanuts TV shows that featured music by Vince Guaraldi. This concept album, inspired by Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter, about the life of the legendary New Orleans horn player Buddy Bolden, features a stellar cast of musicians including the diverse Julian Priester (who did a lot of recording with Granelli at the time) on trombone, Kenny Garrett on alto sax, Anthony Cox on bass, and the double-guitar whammy of Bill Frisell and Robben Ford (their only recording together). It's a fascinating collective that mixes a flair for old New Orleans jazz with the sensibility of that late-80s downtown sound, despite this production's origins in Seattle at about the same time the town was breaking out as an alternative music hotspot. Again, Frisell is on board with the concept and adds much to the mise-en-scene. He's in the background much of the time, but this is not about who can lead as much as it is about how much can you contribute to everyone else. Frisell succeeds most admirably, driving the proceedings forward most distinctively. But he's really not the only one who does so here. The fabulous line up of tunes includes Ellington's little known "Wanderlust," Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," two takes of Ornette Coleman's terrific "Blues Connotation," Priester's lovely "Prelude To Silence" (where he reminds us that he traversed the bands of Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi) and first-rate Granelli originals "The Oyster Dance" and "Coming Through Slaughter." Frequent Frisell collaborator Wayne Horvitz contributes two compositions as well as several arrangements. The two guitarists are most notably featured on "I Put A Spell On You," which is the apex of this disc's many fine performances.

Going Back Home: Ginger Baker Trio (Atlantic, 1994): On the face of things, this disc may be a surprising inclusion. It certainly was a surprise when it was first released some 15 years ago. But it is probably one of the best ways to experience the purity and poetry of Bill Frisell, the guitarist who knows no musical boundaries. Jazz, rock, thrash, country and folk all blend beautifully in his universe. It does so here too and it took a Ginger Baker album, of all things, to so beautifully catalog Frisell's capabilities. Baker, founder of one the 1960s legendary rock power trios, Cream (with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce), here helms a different sort of power trio, with Frisell and the remarkable and remarkably game Charlie Haden on bass. It's hard to say why this album works so well. Baker certainly is unlike any other drummer Frisell has been recorded with. Consider any drummer Frisell was working with at the time: Paul Motian, Joey Baron, Michael Shrieve or Ralph Peterson. Baker brings a four-on-the-floor rock time-keeping thing to the proceedings with a special fondness for tom-tom fills, nearly rendering the program something of a "Frisell lite" for Frisell fans. But Frisell responds surprisingly well. He is in top form here, delivering one line after another of interesting ideas, driven no doubt by the distinctive and melodic Charlie Haden (who'd previously recorded with Frisell on three Paul Motian discs, a David Sanborn disc and John Scofield's Grace Under Pressure). The disc's most memorable songs are the three pieces Haden contributes ("In The Moment," "Spritual" and, most notably, "Ginger Blues"), two exceptionally rousing covers (Monk's "Straight No Chaser" and Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin") and two songs Frisell revives quite nicely from his 1985 album Rambler ("Rambler" and "When We Go"). The only misfire here is the disc's epilogue, Baker's "East Timor," a real downer that seems to end an otherwise very good album on an off note. The trio reconvened the following year for Falling Off The Roof (Atlantic, 1995), a forgettable and forgotten reprise that needlessly added Jerry Hahn's guitar and Bela Fleck's banjo to several tracks.

The Sound Of Summer Running: Marc Johnson (Verve, 1998): This exquisite album is still a most remarkable achievement. Not only is it unquestionably one of the best jazz discs of 1998, it still stands today as one of bassist Marc Johnson's finest efforts under his own name. It is instantly memorable and lingers long after it's finished. It also boasts the fascinating two-guitar frontline of Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny in what was their very first collaboration (the two appeared on the 1987 Bob Moses album The Story of Moses but not together). The program is as picture perfect as it is pitch perfect. Johnson's quartet, rounded out by the ubiquitous and infallible Joey Baron on drums, delivers a sort of folksy Americana that Frisell had been successfully exploring since Have A Little Faith and which Metheny showed a marked affinity for on his then recent Beyond The Missouri Sky with Charlie Haden. All seven of Johnson's originals are breathtakingly gorgeous and delivered lyrically by all concerned. This is a remarkably cohesive foursome, each listening to the other and offering only what moves the mood of the melody along. If there is a sound of summer running, these four have certainly found it. Like his best work, Frisell doesn't stand out here so much as beautifully blends in. That's true of his three associates here too. Johnson crafts his songs to each of the strengths of both guitarists - and let's face it, Baron can do anything and do it well - though "Summer Running" seems especially meant for Metheny and "Porch Swing" seems especially geared toward Frisell. Metheny contributes one original here ("For A Thousand Years") and Frisell offers two, "Ghost Town" (which later became the title track to Frisell's 2000 solo album) and "The Adventures of Max and Ben."

Romance With The Unseen: Don Byron (Blue Note, 1999): One doesn't get too many chances to hear Frisell in a straight jazz setting and this is among one of his finest. Clarinetist Don Byron leads an excellent quartet here with Frisell on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and the always superb Jack DeJohnette on drums. Frisell factors in two previous Byron discs, Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra, 1991) and Music For Six Musicians (Nonesuch, 1995), and Byron himself can be heard on Frisell's own Have A Little Faith and This Land (both 1992). Romance is one of Byron's more cohesive efforts and that might be due to the focus Frisell provides as something of co-leader. Elsewhere, Byron tends to traffic in his eclectic tastes and talents and the effect is something like a Jackson Pollack splatter painting. It's all over the map; some of it is quite good, some of it is easily dismissed. Here, his energies are concentrated and clear. And it works well. It is straight jazz in the electric sense, and probably one of the strongest recordings that came out of the genre that year. The quartet covers two Ellington pieces here, Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap," The Beatles' "I'll Follow The Sun" and six very interesting Byron originals with such interesting titles as "Bernhard (sic) Goetz, James Ramseur and Me" and "Basquiat." Bassist Gress and drummer DeJohnette contribute markedly to the disc's wonderful cohesion (this was Frisell's first recording with the drummer and the two would go on to record The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers together in 2001, and both are featured on McCoy Tyner's recent Guitars).

Far From Enough: Viktor Krauss (Nonesuch, 2004): Bassist Viktor Krauss, a regular member of sister Alison's touring band, is better known for the country and pop acts he's accompanied such as Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, Tom T. Hall, etc. He first appeared with Frisell on the guitarist's 1995 disc Nashville and has been a constant fixture in Frisell groups ever since. On this album, Krauss - in the first disc under his own name - assembles a small group that sounds suspiciously similar to a Frisell group, prominently featuring Frisell on guitars, Jerry Douglas on slide guitar, Steve Jordan on drums and sister Alison on occasional, mostly background, vocals. The 12-song program will sound very familiar to anyone who has picked up a Frisell album in the last 15 years or so. It's hard to say who influenced whom, but Krauss's playful and intoxicatingly melodic album flirts with folk and country idioms as well as jazz and rock - much like Frisell does on those albums where Kruass is featured. This disc is dominated by Krauss originals, several of which stand out, such as "Philo," the lovely guitar-bass duo of "Playground," "Sunday Afternoon Man," "Split Window" and the title track (co-written by Sean Smith and Michael McDonald!). Robert Plant's "Big Log" is beautifully rendered here as a feature for Alison Krauss, appealingly reminiscent of early Cowboy Junkies (several years before Alison's recent duo album with the former Zep man). Frisell establishes a perfectly haunting mood on this number and, elsewhere, he reveals his knowledge of and/or fondness for 70s rock ("Grit Lap," "Tended" and "Side Street"). Intriguingly, Frisell cannot help but drive the sound here. But he does not dominate the proceedings either. As before, Frisell, commits himself to being a part of the team, even though Krauss could be forgiven for turning the reigns over to the guitarist. Frisell contributes spectacularly here, but not loudly or gregariously. There is not one note out of place. Even Frisell's improvisations seem perfectly formed. Everything he plays absolutely belongs and contributes greatly to the spectrum of sound Krauss sets up.

Another recording that probably should be included here is Frisell's power trio recording, Strange Meeting (Antilles, 1987), with bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson in a one-off grouping called Power Tools. Had I not lost this now out-of-print CD somewhere along the way, I would most certainly count this among Frisell's most notable sideman appearances.

Also: Just So Happens (Postcards, 1994) by Gary Peacock with Bill Frisell, Down Home (Intuition, 1997) and We'll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) by Joey Baron with Arthur Blythe, Ron Carter and Bill Frisell, Play (Atlantic, 1999) by Mike Stern with Bill Frisell on four tracks only, 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone, 2005) by Jenny Scheinman (great solos by Frisell on "Song of the Open Road," "Suza" and "June 21") and Guitars (Half Note, 2008) by McCoy Tyner with Bill Frisell on three tracks only.


Jean K said...

Doug - Great article and great blog. Many thanks!

Douglas Payne said...

A well-done playlist of tunes featuring Bill Frisell as a sideman, compiled by David P, who turned me on to Frisell stuff I knew nothing about: http://www.imeem.com/people/drD80c/playlist/MDHkBq2a/featuring-bill-frisell-music-playlist/

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