OKeh Records/Sony Masterworks
Bill Frisell’s latest album, Big Sur comes from music he was commissioned to write in 2012 for the Monterey Jazz Festival. Inspired by the Californian coastline and reaching out to classical music forms as well as country, bluegrass and rock music – all areas Frisell has visited for standalone projects – Big Sur is a vivid, evocative, rolling journey, a musical landscape realised by the Big Sur Quintet featuring Hank Roberts (cello), Eyvind Kang (viola), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Rudy Royston (drums) and Frisell’s drizzled guitar.
At 19 tracks this album takes in brief sketches and languid, flowing – fully formed – pieces. It is reminiscent of his earlier album, Nashville – but only if that was somehow couched with Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, the end result falling somewhere between gypsy jazz and the Kronos Quartet on a Sunday drive.
We alternate between moments where Frisell’s guitar is to the fore (Shacked Up) and where it seems like it might be absent altogether (Walking Stick) until you hear it picking up – and picking at – country melodies that hide deep inside the cushion of classical violin stabs.
I’m reminded of the music Willy Vlautin created to accompany his own novel, Northline; of Mark Knopfler’s scores for Last Exit To Brooklyn and Wag The Dog (if they had only been able to talk to one another, to share a conversation…) and – of course – of the way Frisell blends austerity and innovation, his stateliness and poise. And his risk-taking, his way with a line.
Big Sur is both an easy drift (Highway 1) and the most perfect, most beautiful waft (Song For Lana Weeks). It could soundtrack a reading of Walt Whitman poems; it could score a dance, it feels like it talks to you. It speaks. It shares the beauty of the landscape and a language within the music. And of course there’s never an actual word spoken.
As good as anything by Frisell when at the top of his game. Which, when you look back on that fine body of work, is almost always.