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Bill Frisell Selected Recordings Review

Compilation. Released 2002.  

BBC Review

Retrospective of guitarist Frisell's years with ECM, selected by the man himself.

Dan Hill 2002

Another entrant in the beautifully designed (natch) :rarum series from ECM, Bill Frisell's self-selection is a largely successful retrospective over the varied career of this utterly unique jazz guitarist.

Oft-named 'The Clark Kent of the Guitar', in recent times he's been the subject of a few barbs that he's lost the fire in his playing; that he's settled into a comfortable mid-Western Americana. If he has become more like 'The Garrison Keillor of the Guitar', I'm not even sure why this would be considered demeaning (as if we need another Ted Nugent or something).

Also, as Frisell mentions in his liner notes here, "some people say (Americana) has come into my playing in recent years. I think it's been there all along." There are recent signs that his work is exploring pastures new again - but for a reminder of what some fans are yearning for, his ECM years provide perfect example of what a fine and varied musician Frisell is.

For instance there's certainly evidence of his noisier, expressionistic side, familiar from work on other labels, with Naked City or his trio with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron (pictured here with hair!). Exhibit A: "Singsong"'s incredible, sustained call-and-response with Jan Garbarek from the latter's "Wayfarer", a wonderful display of on-the-edge feedback-shaping which would've caused Hendrix to raise an eyebrow.

Frisell's delicate supportive phrasing is everywhere, such as colouring for Lee Konitz and Dave Holland (from Kenny Wheeler's delicious "Angel Song") or sculpting an ingenius harmonic understanding with Paul Bley.

"Lonesome", from "Lookout For Hope", provides evidence of those Americana roots, and "In Line" and "Introduction" (for Paul Motian) are wondrous solo performances. His many sides are fully represented - though for this writer, some of his finest moments for ECM occur on Eberhard Weber's "Later That Evening" and for Marc Johnson's Bass Desires group, neither represented here.

There's little here that the committed Frisellophile won't already have, but experiencing his selection as a coherent collection is a salutary reminder of the value of his playing, and the value of the ECM groups he worked with. Key like-minded performers on these recordings include Garbarek, Paul Motian (with whom he started at ECM and "one of the most important and inspiring relationships in my life" according to Frisell), Joe Lovano, Bley, Wheeler, and not least Driscoll, Baron and Hank Roberts, forming the Bill Frisell Band.

Last word, idiosyncratically, goes to the Gavin Bryars piece "Sub Rosa (Dedicated to Bill Frisell)", a 'contemporary classical' piece which Frisell neither appears on nor wrote (though Bryars based his composition on a track from Frisell's "In Line"). It's a wonderful choice though, as it suggests both Frisell's signature melodic gift (though refracted through Bryars' prism) and the stately grace of this most humbly inspiring of guitarists.

Frisell's an immediately recognisable musician on that most overplayed of instruments, and if anything ":rarum V" reminds us all the benefit of underplaying and restraint - for when Bill Frisell plugs in, he achieves way more contrast, impact, and expression than those who turn their amps up to 11.

If you want to study 'Bill Frisell 101' or even 'Introduction to the Modern Jazz Guitar' this term, this collection is perfect.

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