Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Bill Frisell, 'Big Sur'

Five songs into Big Sur, the immensely fun new recording by Bill Frisell, we stumble onto a sound that, on the surface, seems new.

But like so many of the guitarists' explorations, especially ones using some form of Americana and jazz as starting points, the resulting music is a hybrid. In the case of the spry tune in question, The Big One, what we hear is a cross-pollination of surf and chamber music.

The groove, cleanly executed by Frisell and drummer Rudy Royston, is orchestrated by violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Granted, this is one of Big Sur's bigger risks. But it is reflective of the meshing of styles and bands to a unified (and commissioned) theme that sits at the heart of Frisell's new music.

Big Sur is a 19-song, hourlong suite commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival that included a residency on an 860-acre ranch, bequeathed to the Big Sur Land Trust, where Frisell was allowed to compose this new music. Usually, with thematic projects, commissioned or otherwise, Frisell weaves in vintage country, folk or pop covers with his own compositions. All of the music on Big Sur came by Frisell's pen, although familiar references and imagery abound, including the aforementioned surf bounce; the light country dance that percolates through We All Love Neil Young (which places Scheinman's mix of folk and fancy in the spotlight); and the twilight campfire feel of Cry Alone.

That the music represents a merger of sounds and styles should seem expected because the quintet Frisell has gathered for Big Sur is a blend of two bands — the 858 Quartet (Scheinman, Kang and Roberts) and the Beautiful Dreamers (Royston). That makes for some pretty surprising combinations.

The Animals is all low-toned string reflection that almost sounds like a Celtic requiem. Then Highway 1 yanks in Royston for a sudden yet sustained beat that the strings circle around like hawks. Speaking of which, there is also a tune called Hawks. But its feel is lighter, more animated. The strings reel about with stately fussiness while drums set and then tinker with a groove that Frisell has a ball with.

About the only qualm to be found with this kind of musical give-and-take is that Frisell's expert playing is often downplayed. Never one to show off, Frisell happily plays team member on Big Sur rather than group leader. His guitar work adds to a restless melody on Shacked Up, largely outlined by strings, and then rides shotgun on the lovely cello reverie that begins Song for Lana Weeks. Such is the ambience that sets this lovely but unlikely West Coast postcard aglow.