Is there a more eclectic, protean guitarist alive than Bill Frisell? He’s recorded with diverse singers (Abigail Washburn, Elvis Costello), cutting-edge jazz performers (John Zorn, Don Byron), and mainstream jazz icons (Lee Konitz) — all without compromise. In his solo work, Frisell has scored Buster Keaton films, explored Americana on Nashville, and released a heartfelt tribute to John Lennon. He can swing, shriek, and wax ethereal. On his latest album, composed (mostly) during a ten-day retreat in Big Sur, Frisell pays homage to that beautiful hunk of geography with an unusual quintet: his guitar, violin, viola, cello, and drums.
Opener “The Music of Glen Deven Ranch” is a stately, lovely waltz that could’ve perhaps been composed in Stephen Foster’s time. Conversely, the crashing ocean waves are evoked in “The Big One,” an energetic, slightly loopy surf-rock-laced romp. “Highway 1” is an Americanized take on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”: a pensive melody lopes along as Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang (on violin and viola, respectively) saw away in a bluesy manner that’s subtle yet compelling. “Hawks,” with its unusual march-like tempo, finds Frisell playing some sizzling, almost psychedelic sustain, and “We All Love Neil Young” recreates Young’s rustic-sounding voice in the form of Kang’s viola as Frisell elegantly picks country-ish notes beneath.
Musicianship throughout is, as usual, superb. And while there are excellent (and soulfully poetic) solos, the brilliant Big Sur is not about flamboyance — it’s about a tight, empathetic group playing as an entity with nary an non-essential note. (Okeh/Sony)