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Bill Frisell – Unspeakable

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

Big ears: usually a none-too-nice description of some poor kid on the elementary school playground. In the jazz world, “big ears” is a good thing. The musician with big ears has an advantage when responding to band mates and improvising against them. The big ears concept can also be extended to a musician’s use of external influences.

In Bill Frisell’s case the latter concept is more than evident with his stew of jazz, blues, folk, avant and several other musics that I’m sure I’m forgetting. On Unspeakable, Frisell partners with producer/musical mad scientist Hal Wilner resulting in one fine and thought-provoking chunk ‘o sound.

Over the past I’m-not-sure how many years, there has been some grousing that Frisell has become too deeply enamored with the Americana thing. While I can see where they’re coming from, I’ve found no problem with Frisell’s track. Maybe the music had become too ‘slow’ for some. For a person like me, who sees too much speed in all areas of modern life, his introspective takes on American music were the perfect tonic. Plus, there’s nobody else out there doing things like simultaneously paying tribute to Aaron Copland and Madonna (check out the respectful “Billy The Kid” and the deconstruction of “Live To Tell”, both on Have A Little Faith).

Never one to be afraid of hefting a big sonic palette, Frisell adds Wilner’s production genius as well as his turntable and sampler skills. Two guys with big ears..hooboy, this is some tasty stuff. Another wrinkle here is the groove. While you wouldn’t mistake this material for, say, John Scofield with Medeski, Martin & Wood, there is definitely some percolatin’ rhythm going on. The opening “1968” hops along on the strength of the percussion of Don Alias and Kenny Wollesen while many of the more familiar elements write the story: chiming guitar lines and ‘commentary’ guitar responses. Who better to improvise with Frisell than the man himself? Rounding out this sound are some string arrangements executed by the stellar “858 Strings” of Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola) and longtime Frisell cohort Hank Roberts on cello.

For the fan of the ‘thoughtful Frisell’, there are tunes such as “Sundust” (with very cool “Tribal Calling” samples), “Gregory C” (all Frisell and Wilner), and especially “Hymn For Ginsberg”, which pairs up the 858 Strings with Frisell at his pastoral best.

Then, for those who first encountered Frisell in the Before We Were Born era (I’m in that group), there are things like “Stringbean” (full of those angular guitar lines we all love), “Fields of Alfalfa” and “Old Sugar Bear”.

Unspeakable closes things out with eight minutes and fifty-nine seconds of “Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye”. Said to be based on Teddy Lasry’s “Sonate En Plein Ciel”, this is one spooky piece of music that starts out all American Gothic but ends closer to The Scream. Pure Frisell, I tell ya.

You can think of Unspeakable as a Bill Frisell career retrospective, played out via new compositions. If this seems like a contradiction in terms, just give the album a listen. You’ll come around.

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About Mark Saleski

  • I didn’t warm up to it immediately, but I’ve come to love Unspeakable, and it’s one of my favorite jazz albums of the year. Your comments pretty much echo my feelings about Frisell in general and the album, actually. What I love about this album is that there’s this odd energy between two very different, very laid-back styles – Frisell’s very country-esque phrasing is having a very mellow argument with Willner’s gentle groove. I hope we hear more of Frisell in this mode in the future.

  • i agree tom. this was sort of hinted at on The Intercontinentals, albeit in a different way.

  • Eric Olsen

    Mark, this is just about a perfect review: knowledgeable but friendly, career generalities and specifics of the record at hand, expansive yet succinct. Just excellent – thanks!

  • stop it! i’m blushing!!


  • JR

    While I’m not too enthusiastic about the Americana myself, I’m interested in just about anything Bill Frisell puts out. He’s one of only two or three (loosely defined) jazz guitarists whose tone I actually like.

    My problem is that Nonesuch prices me out of the market (as does ECM); even during sales I never see any of Frisell’s stuff below $14. I refuse to spend that kind of money for a single CD just on principle. One of these days I’ll seek out the used CD dealers in my area, but right now I’m finding more than enough affordable stuff to keep me busy. I’m just glad Frisell has done a lot of good session work for others.

  • JR, would you have bought it normally at $14 plus tax? That’s a perfectly fair price to me. You can find it for $13.89 at Cheap-CDs, which has long been a favorite of mine. They don’t have everything, but they usually have a good selection and usually beat everyone else on price.

  • JR

    As a rule I don’t buy anything over $13 retail price. And at $12.99, I have to really want it (Bill Frisell qualifies).

  • there are some things i will pay more than $14 for. this is usually at my local (very small) cd shop.

    i do it because the guy really knows music and i feel i’ve gotta support such a thing because it’s so danged rare.

  • JR, what exactly do you purchase then? I can’t think of more than a few mainstream releases that would qualify for your $12.99 rule. Why that amount? I mean, I’m picky about spending too much, and I’ll even go way out of my way to save a buck or two just to make a point, but that’s a really unrealistically low price-point you’re aiming for. Maybe five years ago that would be an achievable goal, and maybe today if you were into all the teenybopper music, you might be able to score some albums during release-week below $12.99 at Best Buy, but after that, good luck. And if you’re into Bill Frisell and ECM artists, you likely aren’t a buyer of much mainstream stuff. Not to go all armchair-psychologist, but making a rule that unrealistic strikes me as the kind of rule a person makes when they’re looking for an excuse, not someone simply watching their budget. If you enjoy what an artist puts out, spending two dollars more is not going to be out of the question, especially when you already know that the price isn’t going to be any lower.

  • JR

    I buy a lot of backlog; particularly stuff like Blue Note, Rhino and Columbia Legacy reissues. That’s pretty mainstream stuff, just old.

    Of this last year’s new releases, I’ve gotten Marc Broussard’s debut and Rush’s Feedback for $8.99; Honkin’ On Bobo, Larry Carlton’s Sapphire Blue, Franz Ferdinand, Feels Like Home, The Girl In the Other Room, the latest Yngwie and Musicology for $9.99; the latest Ramstein and EnRoute for $11.24; one of those live Pearl Jam two-CD sets, Is There Love In Space? and Shakira’s live CD/DVD set for 11.99; the double live Brian Setzer Orchestra set for $14.99; the Dave Matthews double live set for 16.99; and the Dream Theater 3-CD set for $19.49. I got several recent mainstream releases at the Circuit City $9.99 sale last Memorial Day, unfortunately they don’t carry much jazz.

    My irrational rationalization is that I’m trying to drive prices down by keeping demand elastic. Hey, it seems to have worked with Universal. Nonesuch hasn’t blinked yet. They’re going to be tough.

  • Matthew

    How can you go through this review and not mention the excellent “White Fang”? Ridiculous.

  • Yeah, Mark, what were you thinking??


  • i think i was trying to figure out how to work my Kid Rock angle in and got distracted.