...testament to the man's place at the very epicentre of modern American music.
Chris Jones 2008
Some artists, as they grow older, have a tendency to retreat into a safety zone that displays their skill but doesn't expand their repertoire or provide impetus for keeping up (Keith Jarrett's classic songbook interpretations spring to mind). Not so guitarist Bill Frisell. From his early days as Manfred Eicher's pet six-stringed sessioneer at ECM he's been refining and expanding his palette with every release. His move into the more traditional areas of Americana over the last few years has seen him cross genre boundaries and become the missing link between Norah Jones and John Zorn (and how many times have you heard that sentence?). History Mystery, following last year's bluesy electronica of Floratone, does it again.
Some of history... was recorded with Floratone's producer Lee Townsend in the same studio, but it's mainly drawn from a series of live dates in Washington, Boston and Hanover with an octet that includes Kenny Wollesen on lithe drums and a whole heap of string action from Eyvind King, Jenny Scheinman and Hank Roberts. This format allows the mood to go all the way from Penguin Cafe-like quirkiness like Question #1 to the playful bop of Subconscious Lee. The double CD comprises two suites of music composed for differing purposes. The first was a multimedia collaboration - Mysterio Sympatico - with sleeve artist and comic book illustrator, Jim Woodring (whose work has graced Frisell's albums); the second was composed to accompany the Stories From The Heart Of The Land National Public Radio series.
Like the man himself, this is polite and unassuming music in many ways. Frisell has the notable knack of always sounding like himself, a lot of which is down to his mastery of the electronics. Everything on offer here balances traditionalism with some remarkably subtle bleeps and loops. Bill’s tone is always clean and compressed though he does get a little heavy on tracks like Lazy Robinson, and he effortlessly moves from background to foreground, never grandstanding. While Frisell's own material dominates - and the standard is amazing - there are some covers which also demonstrate why he's such a great interpreter as well. Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come lazily drifting along on the horns of Greg Tardy and Ron Miles is wonderfully laid-back, but the highlight has to be his take on Boubcar Traore’s Baba Drame. This hypnotic weave through the Malian’s blues is spellbinding. And just so right...
The nature of these pieces' genesis does mean that they fit more into the 'soundtrack' end of his canon. Yet the whole album stands as yet another testament to the man's place at the very epicentre of modern American music. Yes, he's done it again...