That chord encapsulates everything I love about Frisell - his quirkiness, his fresh use of noise and sound in music, his patience to allow his vision to coalesce in his listeners’ minds.
But the real reason I couldn’t resist this 2001 release by Nonesuch Records was Frisell’s mates on the date: bass player Dave Holland - whose three recent quintet albums on the ECM label have earned near-universal raves from contemporary music audiences - and drummer Elvin Jones, whose work with John Coltrane’s classic quartet in the ’60s is just the beginning of a long list of musical achievements.
Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones is, in many ways, an old-school album. These three musicians have never played together before; one imagines they just wanted to get together in the studio to see what would happen. No one brings any new material to the date, instead experimenting with 10 Frisell tunes - compositions mostly from recent albums such as Blue Dreams (2001) and Ghost Town (2000), but also from back aways to Is That You? (1990) and Rambler (1985). Two covers round out the set - Henry Mancini’s "Moon River" and Stephen Foster’s "Hard Times" - harkening back to other favorite Frisell discs such as Nashville (1997) and Have A Little Faith (1993).
The results are consistent, slow and steady, almost ambient, reminscent of Miles Davis’ breakthrough ’69 recording, In A Silent Way. Frisell, Holland and Jones don’t feel pressed to go anywhere in particular, and that’s kind of pleasant, allowing them to visit many worlds and moods without sounding like they’re just noodling. Frisell plays sparsely, almost minimalistically, but he fills up the background with overdubs and tape loops. Jones and Holland sound like they are taking things pretty easy, but really, it’s hard to sustain the careful, slow pace of this set. And as the music develops, they dive in deeper, with the bassist spinning out inventive lines beneath Frisell’s nearly free playing, and Jones constantly pushing things just a little off balance, keeping strict time but disguising the downbeat amid rumbles and rolls.
"Outlaws," that first track with that first chord sounds like an Indian raga or a musical sketch of the first twitchings of a new life. The feeling is hard to sum up: a little creepy, a little suspenseful, like a David Lynch movie or a "Twilight Zone" episode, but also rich, bluesy and spacious, with a relentless groove underneath the asymmetrical lead.
This tune originally appeared Frisell’s 2000 release, Ghost Town, which like a lot of the guitarist’s work of the past three years was a little too thin and hollow for me. Here, however, the tune is nicely fleshed out with Holland’s clear playing, Jones’ relentless time and several overdubs.
"Twenty Years" is a funny, funky Western short story, with odd details coming into sharp focus from out of the nostalgic haze. Jones again lays it down as rock-solid as a jazz machine and Holland deftly fills in below Frisell’s twinkling, shimmering electric guitar. "Coffaro’s Theme" moves like a slow rock ballad, with another theme loping across a wide cinematic landscape where the cowboy rides not a horse but some alien beast with three legs and a purple lion’s tail. By this time, Jones’ fans may be wanting more from him. He seems mostly to be keeping time, which is like asking Einstein to recite his multiplication tables, but when you concentrate on him you can hear he is, in fact, up to much more.
"Blues Dream" is both bluesy and dreamy, and here Elvin gets to do more of what he’s famous for - complex polyrhythms and off-centered, driving playing that nonetheless flows like magma. "Moon River" is a nice reading of the tune, unlikely material for Jones and Holland but not for Frisell. "Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa" starts off with some of Jones’ deep, chthonic rumbling, bringing to mind some of Coltrane’s gospel-inflected tunes such as "Dear Lord" and "After the Rain." Then the trio finds the groove and swings gently but with great grit.
The pace picks up a little with "Strange Meeting," one of Frisell’s oldest compositions and one of his more familiar tunes. The three seem to really click on this one, sounding especially fluid and cohesive. Jones drums drunken, staggering figures behind Frisell’s intro on "Convict 13," and Holland lays down a solid foundation. "Again" opens with more solo Elvin - what we came here for, after all - before settling down into Frisell’s quietly ominous melody.
"Hard Times," the Stephen Foster tune, could have come off of any of Frisell’s folksy Americana discs of recent years. The trio plays it pretty straight, which offers a nice chance to regain your sense of direction. It’s on tunes like this that you can really hear what an outstanding guitarist Frisell is. "Justice & Honor" is a lovely little ballad, tender and sweet like a summer evening in the Midwest, and "Smilin’ Jones" is a fun little ditty, the most energetic of the 12 cuts.
Sometimes musicians get together in the studio and fart around, cut a bunch of tracks and release a disc that hold little interest aside from novelty. But sometimes they come together and create something worthy of many long, enjoyable listenings. This disc falls into that latter category.