Bill Frisell’s Big Sur

Bill Frisell’s new CD, Big Sur (Sony Masterworks/OKeh Records), is at once a reprise and a departure. It features the string musicians from his 858 Quartet, last heard two years ago on Sign of Life—Frisell on guitar, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, Hank Roberts, cello—this time augmented by the versatile young drummer Rudy Royston. The album also features 19 new Frisell compositions, lithe and lyrical, yet laced with more complex harmonies—subtler, darker, and more sinuous—than anything I’ve heard from him before.

The music from the quartet’s first album, 858 Richter, written to accompany a 2005 museum show of new works by the German painter Gerhard Richter, tried to capture his steely abstraction and his pastoral calm, but never quite fused the two. Sign of Life, recorded six years later, settled for the calm; it was almost all gorgeous chamber music. Big Sur is a true synthesis, with a decided tilt toward the graceful and the melodic: the unnerving strands insinuate themselves only slightly, through the color notes and the jagged rhythms (for which Royston supplies the accents).

This is not “difficult” music. Most of it sways, saunters and swings. Frisell has managed to pack layers of sound into his concoctions, and you can bask in the top waves or delve deep into the undercurrents, as you choose. There are pleasures at all levels.

The album’s title shouldn’t be taken too literally. Frisell wrote the music at Glen Daven Ranch in Big Sur, California, and the band performed it for the first time just last year at the nearby Monterey Jazz Festival.

As with Sign of Life, the recording was produced by Lee Townsend, engineered by Adam Munoz, and mastered by Greg Calbi. The sound is both lush and dynamic: a bit pop-electrified, but the effect is apt for this music, and immersive.

soundmine's picture

Gone Just Like a Train remains my favorite Frisell album, with Blues for Los Angeles (the guitar solo swings and rocks) and Lookout for Hope, imho, the stand-outs.

Both sound sublime on a good system.

Fred Kaplan's picture

That's a great one. I also particularly like "History, Mystery" and "Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones." Plus the trio records, led by Paul Motian, with Joe Lovano. Ron Miles' album of a couple years back. Anything by Jenny Scheinman with Frisell as a sideman... Fred Kaplan