Release date: September 19, 1988
Number 12 of ECM’s “Works” series ushers us into the woods behind guitarist Bill Frisell’s musical homestead. It’s a damp, shadowy, and at times warped place to be, but nonetheless familiar. As with many of its predecessors, the juxtaposition of tracks suggests new associations even as it invites further reshuffling in our analysis. In this case, it behooves us to start plurally and work our way to the singular.
One of Frisell’s all-time standouts, “When We Go,” is blessedly included. Taken from 1985’s Rambler, it drops Frisell into a band only ECM could have put together with Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Bob Stewart (tuba), Jerome Harris (electric bass), and Paul Motian (drums). The tune’s balance of carnivalesque and fantastic progressions is uniquely Frisell’s own, and the sound of his guitar—fluid yet crisp—is winning. “Wizard Of Odds,” from the same session, is likewise emblematic. These two alone serve as a viable introduction to his totality as a player.
From quintet to quartet, Frisell joins another dream team of John Surman (soprano saxophone), Paul Bley (piano), and Motian. “Monica Jane” (Fragments, 1986) mixes Bley’s bluesy backing, Surman’s swanky surrealism, and that unmistakable guitar until only shadows remain. “Conception Vessel” (it should’ve happened a long time ago, 1985) is a trio setting with Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone) and Motian once again. Lovano brings harmonic wonders to bear, while Motian himself is so organically integrated that one hardly notices him. A rather different sound emerges by way of “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” (Bass Desires, 1986), in which bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine provide a pliant backdrop for Frisell’s instrument, which touches the edges of consciousness as a brush to hair.
“The Beach” (In Line, 1983) is a duo with bassist Arild Andersen, whose arco harmonics ignite heat lightening above Frisell’s deserted farmland, leaving us to witness another masterstroke in “Throughout.” Later adapted by Gavin Bryars as Sub Rosa (which actually concludes the Frisell collection released on ECM’s :rarum series), it mixes the oil and water of acoustic and electric guitars with alchemical assurance. A year before that, Frisell laid down the truly solo “Etude” on Motian’s 1982 wonder, Psalm, the touchless notecraft of which curls arms around ears.
Looking back on these, we can see any number of other possible paths through their uncongested streets, of which the one presented here is a page in an atlas of possibilities. However we choose to regard them, we can be sure they will always take us somewhere far away and make it feel like home.