Music News & Reviews

Critic’s Pick: Bill Frisell, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’

How fitting that the first musical voice you hear on When You Wish Upon a Star, Bill Frisell’s sublime new sampler of retooled film and television scores from decades past, doesn’t belong to the celebrated guitarist. What greets us initially is the lone viola of longtime Frisell ally Eyvind Kang as it all blows through the late-summer unrest of Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird theme. Fear not, though. Frissell’s light but ominous guitar lines soon dance along with a rhythm section that, throughout the album, efficiently balances its sense of adventure with loose solidarity. What results is a ballet of sorts — one tempered and elegant that reaffirms Frisell’s status as one of today’s most fearless andmajestic yet understated guitar stylists.

In some ways, When You Wish Upon a Star can be seen as an extension of Frisell’s love of vintage Americana, an inspiration so wonderfully expressed on his albums Nashville and Beautiful Dreamers. That explains the merry clang the guitarist summons during the Bonanza theme, a tune that varies not in its clarion-call lyricism and Western-informed joy but in the stampeding rhythm section of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. The same spirit propels the album-closing Happy Trails, the classic sendoff anthem that, with Petra Haden’s multi-tracked vocals and the wiry slow-poke strut of Frisell’s guitar work, sounds more like a serenade by Mary Ford or the Andrew Sisters than a saddle chat with Roy Rogers.

By combining the two ensemble settings that pervade the majority of his recordings — jazz combo and progressive string quartet/quintet — and then opening the scope of his repertoire to include the global reach of Hollywood, Frisell has stretched his Americana highway into infinity.

Take for instance, a reimagining of the theme to the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. With Haden taking over the vocal lead established initially by Nancy Sinatra, and Kang modestly establishing the tune’s Asian undercurrent, Frisell creates a portrait of vintage cinematic splendor where he is as much a spectator (in terms of how much room he lends to his bandmates) as a leader.

In perhaps its most masterful strokes, When You Wish Upon a Star juggles extremes. A nine-minute medley of themes that Nino Rota composed for The Godfather is pure wonder — a mix of gypsy flourishes, jagged guitar torrents, a strong noir undercurrent and a rhythm section whose restlessness beautifully intrudes on the music until it settles under a groove by Frisell and Kang during the closing love theme.

The other extreme is measured by When You Wish Upon a Star’s title song in an arrangement that correctly reveres an inherent innocence enough to ultimately utilize it as a lullaby-like admission to the album’s inward celebration of Hollywood past.

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