The idea of using music to evoke an impression of some exotic or awe inspiring physical locale is not particularly new. Classical composers have tried their hand at it. Think of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. Semi-classical composers have had a go at it. Think of Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. Jazz artists have not been far behind: whether it be something like the Duke’s ode to the city in “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” or a celebratory album like Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
So when guitar master Bill Frisell composes his own elegant evocation of Central California’s spectacular coastal area Big Sur, he is working in a well-trodden tradition. What separates him from the crowd is the range, the variety of influences on his music. As you listen to the 19 tracks on Big Sur, you can hear music you would call jazz, and music you would call classical; there’s roots music and rock, and perhaps even a pop vibe at times. Certainly there will be the pedantic purists who protest the smashing of generic walls, but it is often the rejection of restrictive labels that leads to innovation. And if the measure of that innovation is the beauty of the result, Frisell has put together a collection of tone poems that do full justice to the majesty of Big Sur.
The music was composed in 2012 as a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival which included a residency at Glen Deven Ranch. There, alone in the heart of Big Sur, Frisell, inspired by the area’s natural beauty like so many artists before him, found the music pouring out. “I filled up pages and pages,” he says. “The music just kept coming.”
Just before the work’s debut at the festival, Frisell combined the membership of two of his previous ensembles, the Beautiful Dreamers Trio and the 858 Quartet, to form a new group, the Big Sur Quintet. Joining Frisell are violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston—not exactly a typical line-up for a jazz album, but a group of musicians that feed off each other intuitively. “This quintet feels like family,” Frisell explains.
The music is more than a blend of different generic influences. It is also a blend of the different moods inspired by the magnificence of the setting. Its awesome majesty is celebrated in a track like “Big Sur,” while the ethereal “Far Away” suggests its mystical spiritual effect. “Sing Together Like a Family” points to the unifying effect of the natural setting, as does the tribute to the folk rocker, “We All Love Neil Young.” There is music that makes a nod to the wild life—the flight of the “Hawks” and there is music that seems to paint the sounds of the area—the waves of “The Big One.” Even the man-made intrusion, the roadway “Highway 1” gets its due.
Whatever you decide to call a collection of tunes that includes a country-flavored “Song for Lana Weeks,” a syncopated “Walking Stick (for Jim Cox),” and an almost funereal “Going to California,” played by a quintet that includes three-quarters of a classical string quartet, the one thing you won’t want to call it is dull. This is exciting music, no matter what name you attach to it.