Bill Frisell: Selected Recordings (:rarum 5)


Bill Frisell
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Bill Frisell is one of a few musicians who came into prominence under Manfred Eicher’s purview yet has since gone on to spread his wings over landscapes of other labels. On ECM, however, he produced a body of work that was entirely uncommon, and embodies the :rarum title as much as any artist featured in its roster of compilations. His self-selection of music is as insightful as it is dreamily alive. Such a description could apply across the board, but perhaps nowhere so organically as in his work with drummer Paul Motian. On “Mandeville,” for instance, a cornerstone of 1982’s Psalm, his backwoods charm—cultivated as if in the marshlands of a distant childhood—carries that same fluid charge of Motian’s free associations, as also in the dark river currents of “Introduction” and “India” from 1985’s it should’ve happened a long time ago. The latter’s inclusion of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano shows just how wide a vista a trio can paint. Other key collaborations include “Singsong” (Wayfarer, 1983) with the Jan Garbarek Group, in which he and the saxophonist intertwine as birds who no longer need to hunt because they are fed by each other’s song, “Kind Of Gentle” with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in 1997’s Angel Song (one of my all-time favorite ECMs), and “Closer” (Fragments, 1986) with pianist Paul Bley. In these, his guitar sings of the past in the language of the present.

Frisell’s albums as leader find him at his most distilled and hard-won. In this respect, he offers digests of three watershed sessions: 1988’s Lookout For Hope, 1985’s Rambler, and 1983’s solo In Line. The first contains such tender flavor profiles as “Alien Prints” and “Lonesome” and boasts the umami of cellist Hank Roberts. The second shows a grungier side of Frisell in such tracks as “Resistor” and “Tone.” In the third, we envision the surreal beauties of the title track. And while In Line also contains one of his gems, “Throughout,” we find it here not in its original form but as arranged by composer Gavin Bryars, who transformed it into the transcendent chamber piece Sub Rosa on 1994’s Vita Nova. In stretching Frisell’s sense of time to fill an era, offsetting regularity with slightly askew phrases, unexpected turns, and breath-stilling highs, Bryars-via-Frisell proves ECM to be its own ecosystem, filled with carefully planted hybrids thriving in crowning harmony.

Bill Frisell: Works


Bill Frisell
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.

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan: Small Town (ECM 2525)

Small Town

Small Town

Bill Frisell guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Recorded March 2016 at Village Vanguard, New York
Engineers: James A. Farber and Paul Zinman
Mixing at Avatar Studios December 2016: James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher, Bill Frisell, and Thomas Morgan
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 26, 2017

In this intimately performed and recorded album, one of two documenting a historic performance at New York City’s Village Vanguard, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan show us what it means to treat jazz as a dialogue. While floating on the waves of their complementary artistry, we encounter one vessel after another of quiet majesty, each more attuned to the stars of navigation than the last.

Because Frisell and Morgan both played at the last session of Paul Motian, it’s only fitting they open with the drummer’s “It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago,” their meditation on which unravels in an 11-minute exhale. This experience alone was more than worth the price of admission for those fortunate enough to have been at the Vanguard that night, and is a perfect summation, if not also aconsummation, of the duo’s boundless imagination.

“Subconscious Lee” follows by paying homage to its composer, Lee Konitz, with an uplifting yet fiercely inward-focused reading. Frisell’s buoyancy here speaks of a musician well aware of the ethereal hand in which the tether of his creativity is gripped. “Song For Andrew No. 1” bears dedication to Andrew Cyrille. An earlier version appeared on The Declaration of Musical Independence, and now finds itself reborn in amorphous coherence. The guitar is nothing short of haunting, as it is in “Small Town,” wherein it sings with tumbleweed-kissed charm. Morgan is a wonderous complement, not so much supporting from the periphery as bringing out punctuation from within. Between those two Frisell originals, the folk tune “Wildwood Flower” wraps Morgan in joyful comfort. The bassist’s own “Pearl,” one of his earliest compositions, speaks with a certain innocence and basks in its own evolution. His heartfelt soloing thinks back, looks forward.

Fats Domino’s flirtatious “What A Party” and a 1960s-inspired nod to “Goldfinger” strings a daisy chain of allusions like a smile across azure sky, sending us on a mission not to destroy but to share the good news of music that awakens us to deepest sense of self.

Although the conversation begun here might seem to end with its companion album, Epistrophy, it will continue to yield new insights the more it’s heard in the world. For to the world it belongs, a sincere echo of its own creation, resonant and deserving of our undivided regard.

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan: Epistrophy (ECM 2626)



Bill Frisell guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, New York, March 2016
Engineers: James A. Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistant engineers: Own Mulholland and Jim Mattingly, SoundByte Productions Inc., New York
Mixing at Avatar Studios, New York, December 2016: James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher, Bill Frisell, and Thomas Morgan
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

Recorded live at The Village Vanguard in March 2016, Epistrophy continues where the conversation between guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan left off on Small Town. In the hands of this duo, a song like “All In Fun” assumes a double meaning. While the pair indeed are enjoying this musical experience, they bring an unforced profundity to the occasion. This tune in particular has what only can be described as a dark buoyancy, a feeling of bobbing along evening waters.

A nod to the folk song “Wildwood Flower” introduces “Save The Last Dance For Me,” which in this context takes on a magical realism. Liberated from their popular associations, tensions emerge in melodic symmetry. Played as lovingly as one could imagine, Paul Motian’s “Mumbo Jumbo” finds Frisell tastefully augmenting Morgan’s psychosomatic filter. The James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” also gets a heartfelt makeover, its machismo now a quieter drama. And Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” emerges from a series of still images, each further detailing the narrative. The title track and “Pannonica,” both from the Thelonioius Monk songbook, are the set’s core, each a reflection of the other: The former’s sprightly charm and linear paths pair beautifully with the latter’s eddying contemplations. The traditional “Red River Valley” is another key passage of synergy that seems tailor-made for these musicians. Like the Frank Sinatra hit “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” that closes, it activates what is tru- est and purest within them, and in us for being privy to their dialogue.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of DownBeat.)

The Bill Frisell Band: Lookout For Hope (ECM 1350)

The Bill Frisell Band
Lookout For Hope

Bill Frisell electric and acoustic guitars, banjo
Hank Roberts cello, voice
Kermit Driscoll bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded March 1987 at Power Station, New York City
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Lee Townsend

Listening to Lookout For Hope is like wandering into a windblown cowboy town. The dirt is bare, save for the errant tumbleweed that dares set twig in this dustbowl. You wander past the Sheriff’s office. A poster hangs outside the door:



And indeed, Frisell has run off with many a stagecoach prize, fashioning each into a personal politic of twisted charm.

On this, another seminal effort on ECM’s Touchstones, Frisell continued to chart his inimitable sound. The wordless vocals of Hank Roberts in the album’s title opener waver like something from the dream diary of Pat Metheny, with whom Frisell shares much insofar as it is almost impossible to listen to either guitarist without seeing epic films of vivid imagery. But make no mistake about feeble comparisons: Frisell is the only dude on this ranch. From his gentle entrance, we know that his is an axe that melts, revealing thematic contours in negative space. He frees melodies from the chopping block and lets them bump into one another as they will. Roberts’s sinewy cello is a no-brainer. As it extends its forked tongue from this sonic bayou, defenestrating itself in a blissful unraveling, it lands smack in the molasses of “Little Brother Bobby,” where with easygoing persuasion it rocks like a back porch chair before stumbling on through the banjo-infested prophecy of “Hangdog” and into the crystalline vision of the album’s capstone, “Remedios The Beauty.” And where “Lonesome” is a raw slab of Podunk beauty that glistens with Frisell’s acoustic, “Melody For Jack” is a dream tunnel into a trio of miniatures before the warm fuzziness of “Alien Prints” plays us out with understated panache.

Lookout For Hope is a walleyed world replete with hokey profundity and slack jaws. Like a good Stephen King novel, it gets under our skin even as it nourishes it. The titular lookout seems but a toothpick of a shadow on the horizon. But no matter, for by the time the final note has run away we’ve already found our hope.

<< Zakir Hussain: Making Music (ECM 1349)
>> arc Johnson’s Bass Desires: Second Sight (ECM 1351)

Bill Frisell: Rambler (ECM 1287)

Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell guitar, guitar synthesizer
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, cornet, fluegelhorn
Bob Stewart tuba
Jerome Harris electric bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded August 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If you’re like me, then you were introduced to the prodigy of guitarist Bill Frisell through the work of John Zorn’s groundbreaking Naked City outfit. In that context, Frisell was able to stretch his skin in ways that he never has before or since. Or so I believed until I only recently began to explore his back catalogue on ECM. The summit of these early explorations is shared by 1983’s In Line and Rambler. Where the former seemed to burrow into the deepest recesses of his craft, the latter travels far and wide, not least through the presence of some fine sidemen: Kenny Wheeler on three kinds of brass, Paul Motian on drums, Jerome Harris on electric bass, and, perhaps most notably, Carla Bley band regular Bob Stewart on tuba. Stewart’s pomp is especially enlivening, teasing out as it does Frisell’s penchant for not taking himself too seriously. The tuba threads an unwavering smile through the morbid march that is “Music I Heard” and adds earth tones to the silvery palette of the title track. The latter is quintessential among Frisell’s output. The lovely webbed slink of his guitar and gorgeous Wheelerian dialogues carries us in strums and strides to an ethereal conclusion. The band also abides by humor in the hokey and lumbering “Tone.” This, the album’s opener, gives us a taste of the mesh that is Frisell’s style, one strung with long threads of algae, picked up and spun by his band mates in kind. Through the tree swing sway of “When We Go” and the tongue-in-cheekily titled “Wizard Of Odds” we encounter Frisell’s flowery side, ever enhanced by Wheeler’s squeals and stops. The campiness of “Resistor” is tempered by the welding torch of Frisell’s electric and the laser of Wheeler’s trumpet, while “Strange Meeting,” fettered by a pleasant bass line, draws itself into an incisive Synclavier sound. As vital as Frisell is to this date, one feels him most in the compositions. Wheeler and Harris are the real stars, and let us not shut our eyes to Paul Motian’s sparkling threads.

Rambler is a significant album for showing the world a remarkable guitarist on his own terms, and through a set of compositions as distinct to his sound-world as the clouds are to the sky.

<< Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)
>> Eberhard Weber: Chorus (ECM 1288)

Bill Frisell: In Line (ECM 1241)

ECM 1241 CD

Bill Frisell
In Line

Bill Frisell electric and acoustic guitars
Arild Andersen bass
Recorded August 1982 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I had the great fortune of seeing Bill Frisell by his lonesome in the summer of 2009 at Northampton’s Iron Horse, where he employed a rather modest set of equipment consisting mainly of digital pedal delays, unfolding from one guitar a ghostly map of sound. This process of self-generation seems to have always been at the heart of his musical output, and no album approaches that feeling as intimately as In Line. His sound is so full that bassist Arild Andersen’s reverberating swaths of darkness reveal an inner voice of the guitar in “Start” and carry Frisell’s suggestive lilts to distant conclusions. Andersen’s role is not to be ignored, sharing as he does a sensual conversation with Frisell in “Three” and providing a tearful backdrop to “Godson Song.” Here, Frisell’s guitar also gently weeps, slithering under the bass’s watchful eye, ever at the edge of naivety. The intertwining electrics of “Two Arms” tighten like a finger trap into a wormhole toward “Shorts,” which recalls childhood with its unintended (?) allusion to “Three Blind Mice.” These brief flashes of nostalgia make their way carefully down the spiral staircase of “Smile On You” and out onto “The Beach,” a stunning soundscape for processed electrics that moves like a train through a tunnel and crests atop Andersen’s slithering harmonics. The title track steps out of the album’s default monochrome with the gamelan colors of its detuned acoustics. The more clean-cut leads take us farthest in a final blissful gasp.

ECM 1241 LP
Original cover

Yet if we’re going to talk about bliss, then our lips must shape the word “Throughout,” which names the album’s most inescapable embrace. This piece would also provide the basis for Gavin Bryars’ heavenly 1986 adaptation, Sub Rosa. The chord progression itself speaks volumes and gives breath to the lead electric as it sings with all the restraint at its disposal.

Like an opera singer who cuts through all the trained vibrato now and then with that single crystalline note, Frisell’s phrasings tremble on a watery surface, glinting occasionally with the light of a distant sun. In that light is hope, and this hope one encounters ECM’s core philosophy of silence. If you only own one Frisell album, make it this.

<< Meredith Monk: Turtle Dreams (ECM 1240 NS)
>> Miroslav Vitous: Journey’s End (ECM 1242)

Gavin Bryars: After the Requiem (ECM New Series 1424)

Gavin Bryars
After the Requiem

Bill Frisell electric guitar
Alexander Balanescu violin, viola
Kate Musker viola
Tony Hinnigan cello
Roger Heaton clarinet, bass clarinet
Dave Smith tenor horn, piano
Gavin Bryars bass
Martin Allen percussion
Simon Limbrick percussion
Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Stan Sulzmann soprano saxophone
Ray Warleigh alto saxophone
Julian Argüelles baritone saxohpone
Recorded September 1990, Rainbow Studio, Oslo and CTS Studio, London
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Stepping into the territory of Gavin Bryars is like coming home, so familiar are the morphemes with which he composes his musical language. One of the most significant recordings in the Bryars catalogue, this disc offers a fine condensation of his spirited and nostalgic sensibilities.

After the Requiem dates from 1990 and follows his Cadman Requiem of the previous year. After completing the latter, which was written for the Hilliard Ensemble in memory of Bryars’s friend Bill Cadman, Manfred Eicher suggested that Bryars spin an instrumental postlude from the requiem’s latent fibers, thus giving us the title piece of this brooding and gorgeous album. Scored for two violas, cello, and electric guitar, After the Requiem offers a distinct take on the state of mourning it so affectionately recreates. Like the gravelly strings that open the piece, the mood is raw and unbounded. Frisell’s guitar sears the darkness like the northern lights with a slow and lustrous fire, bleeding spectral life force into the evening sky. The strings gather momentum, as if to coax the guitar toward the horizon, chasing the memory of an afternoon that can no longer be recovered. Frisell plays as if he were bowing the guitar, drawing out an amplified sustenance that nourishes the vocal hunger of his accompaniment. Where the strings seem to mimic voices, the guitar mimics the strings, ad infinitum. The piece slows about midway through, burrowing even deeper into contemplative soil, at which point Frisell wrenches out some grinding low tones from the lower register of his axe. What would be but one voice lost in a power chord more forcefully played rings here with the humility of supplication. Before long the guitar lets out more substantial tones and shifts to an aerial shot of the same landscape. The earth recedes, leading into the most beautiful moment of the piece, during which the guitar drops from a soaring high note. One can hear, indeed almost taste, the meticulous care that went into this performance. The music fades, as if sending off a spirit to a realm where life continues of its own accord. The continuity between instruments here is such that there are almost no audible gaps between them. And while all the musicians play with consummate grace, Frisell is nothing short of astonishing. Despite the polished feel of the piece it was the result, as Bryars makes clear in his recording diary, of much refinement and experimentation on Frisell’s part, working closely with the composer to achieve the ideal effect.

The Old Tower of Löbenicht. This piece, composed in 1986, is the early version of an instrumental interlude for a yet-to-be-realized opera adapted from Thomas DeQuincey’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant. Says Bryars, “It occurs at a point in the opera where Kant is disturbed at the way in which growing poplar trees have obscured the view of a distant tower which ‘he could not be said properly to see…but (which) rested upon his eye as distant music on the ear—obscurely, or but half revealed to the consciousness.’” The music is meant to evoke Kant’s divided response to the tower’s presence and obfuscation, hence the nocturnal bass clarinet and ominous bells that dominate the first half. The music moves like a barge through ice flows. Its signals ring across the waters to the mainland, traversing coastline, steppes, mountainous terrain, barren fields, contaminated pools. A solemn piano appears with a rhythmic and minimal motif, rocking between two-part harmonies, as Balanescu solos beautifully on violin, at times doubled by Roger Heaton on bass clarinet. This progression is landmarked by a plucked bass and vibraphone. Bryars weaves a few audible strands of light into the otherwise requisite darkness, where constellations are but a memory lost to annals of history. The music very much resembles the trajectory of Glorious Hill, another Bryars masterpiece. The sheer clarity of Balanescu’s tone, at once thin and rich with melodic substance, is the binding thread. As the piece ends, a marimba flutters like butterfly wings in and out of our sonic purview, leaving behind a litany of bells while a bass clarinet scrapes the bottom of its available registers.

Alaric I or II (1989) is scored for two soprano saxophones, one alto, and one baritone. “The title,” Bryars tells us, “comes from the name of the mountain, Mount Alaric, in South West France, opposite the Chateau where I spent the summer [composing this piece]. No-one seemed to know which of the two ‘King Alarics’ the name referred to.” Alaric I or II is an exercise in virtuosity, requiring of the players a variety of techniques, including long bouts of circular breathing and controlled multiphonics. As with the rest of the album, this piece builds slowly yet with purpose. After a series of languid dissonant clusters the alto sax sketches a theme in its haunting surroundings. Suddenly, the two soprano saxes launch into a rhythmic arpeggio, lending a Philip Glassian flavor to the palette. Soon this thins out in a more contemplative air, pausing on a resolved chord, further darkened and reformed into a new beginning. Another rhythmic section begins as the baritone sax raises its throaty call. From this point a steady energy is maintained by at least one instrument as the others play over or around it: one lead is immediately switched off for another, typically between alto and soprano. An evocative fluttering technique signals a close as the quartet subsides into quiet agreement, hermetically sealed and indistinguishable from the rest of the rocky cove. The musicianship here is superb, the saxophonic sound rendered with precision. At times this piece shares an affinity with the brief saxophone quartet in Michael Nyman’s soundtrack for The Piano and would be equally suited for some incidental purpose. Although this is a fairly minimal piece, it evokes a range of atmospheres and images. Its energy moves in peaks and valleys, opening the earth’s bindings just a little further to smell its ink-blotted pages. It’s like a captain’s log floating unseen in the wake of shipwreck, plowing the waves for days before the water turns it into invisible molecules.

Allegrasco (1983) is an “operatic paraphrase” of Bryars’s first opera Medea. It is another larger ensemble piece that opens humbly with piano and clarinet. Brooding strings wrap their arms around the central melody. A bell intones; the strings grow louder; the clarinet snakes its way around like a loose scarf caught in a strong but silent wind. A playful passage ensues, a dance in a silent film. The guitar grows into a more supportive voice, dropping remnants of the album’s title piece into this limpid pool. Allegrasco is a series of finely wrought vignettes, each turning like a musical waterwheel. The music is never still, as if at the whim of an unseen narrative force. We graze the shoreline with each musical gesture, sometimes sinking, sometimes floating.

Bryars’s music practically begs for imagery, if only the listener’s own. It is corroded, antique, and accrues value with age. One hears it anew every time, for it holds a world of possibility.

<< Gesualdo: Tenebrae (ECM 1422/23 NS)
>> Kim Kashkashian: Shostakovich/Chihara/Bouchard (ECM 1425 NS)