Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chamber of the Sublime: Bill Frisell’s Sign of Life

Sometimes music has a way of gently penetrating the heart and soul. For guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, it’s the quality of sublime sound that fills the unique music of the 858 Quartet on their new album, Sign Of Life (Savoy Jazz, 2011). The 858 Quartet features Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, Hank Roberts on cello and Frisell on electric guitar. Each musician brings a distinct sensibility to the music. This group first recorded together in 2005 on the limited release, Richter 858, featuring compositions by Frisell based on paintings by German artist Gerhard Richter.

Sign of Life is a series of short musical ideas that are often revisited during the course of the album. Seventeen tracks grace the record and although they're light, they're not lightweight. For me, Frisell's music is always about life's subtleties; both its gentleness and its grace. The music best exemplifies Frisell’s risk-taking style, as we sway from track-to-track without fear of falling. What makes this new album special, though, is the musical interplay. It's a complete collaboration between the textures of the instruments and the musicians. That quality is particularly evident on "It's a Long Story" (Parts 1 and 2). Rather than develop a theme and improvise on it, the players weave their way forward by blending and contrasting their styles. As Frisell admits in the liner notes, arrangements are "on the spot and subject to change." So what we have here is music where the composition comes out of the improvisation rather than the other way around. In other words, they don’t necessarily start from a written work.

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That said, one of the best "composed" pieces is the mischievous sounding "Youngster." The music has so much character that you can easily imagine a child playing on one of those "structures" climbing and sliding in a continuous motion until they've had enough.

But this record is more than just character studies. It has a strong introspective feel offering a quiet interlude that speaks to the heart and mind like contemporary chamber music by Alban Berg or Dimitry Shostakovich. But Frisell and the 858 Quartet seem to relish the traditional, best heard on "Suitcase in My Hand." This toe-tapping gem flows into the minimalist sounding "Sixty Four" driven by the strings. Frisell works his guitar wizardry against a steady, but changing musical pulse. The result is a rich and beautiful sound.

Sign of Life is chamber music for the 21st Century: thoughtful, emotional, edgy and humorous. Bill Frisell has always brought an articulated quality and commitment to his music, his sound and his guitar playing. I've certainly enjoyed his musical growth over the past 25 years simply because he's so damned adventurous as a musician. He's written and performed music that is often beyond categorization. Yes, he can be found in the jazz section but considering his body of work, now at some 30 albums as a leader, perhaps he needs a section all to himself.

But the key to the album’s success is revealed in the liner notes from John Cage: “One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world affairs created...We should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.” It seems that Cage's sentiments are particularly apparent on Sign Of Life.

John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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