Guitarist Bill Frisell has spent a career making strange and beautiful music, following creative paths that connect genre points that include jazz, but often travel far and wide from that spot. Over the last handful of years, he’s settled into a sort of jazz Americana, an inventive blend of jazz, folk, and rock that has allowed his singular voice to reach a full bloom.
On Frisell’s newest release, Big Sur, he features a new lineup (his Big Sur Quintet), which pulls together members of his 858 Quartet and Beautiful Dreamers trio — violist Eyvind Kang, violinist Jenny Scheinman, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston — as part of a commission and residency in California’s Big Sur region. The resulting music isn’t a departure from recent Frisell albums, but it reflects aspects of each through Frisell’s focused inspiration in his natural surroundings.
At several moments in Big Sur a string quartet gives voice to captivatingly languid melodies, a sound typical to Frisell’s 858 Quartet 2011 release Sign of Life. But here, Frisell’s addition of drummer Royston provides the strings with a delightful counter-rhythmic element, instilling a tension that enhances, rather than shatters, the drifting serenity of the music.
And it’s not all music to drift off to. Not dissimilar to Frisell’s 2010 release Beautiful Dreamers, several tracks, like “A Good Spot” and “We All Love Neil Young,” have a spry demeanor, matching jaunty percussion with sunny expressions by strings, while Frisell wends unending paths between the two camps, sometimes shadowing the melody, sometimes shading in the lines of rhythm. And then there’s a track like “Hawks,” where Frisell takes over the song with an electric burn, ballasted by the hailstorm of drums and strings like lightning flashes streaking through the sky. It’s yet more strange and beautiful music from an artist who has made a career from creating it.