Sunday, September 21, 2008

History Mystery: Traveling with Bill Frisell

So I confess to reading Downbeat's review of Bill Frisell's new double-disc effort, History Mystery before listening to it and that definitely colored how I engaged with this album. David French, the reviewer, points out that much of this album was written for theater and an NPR series called "Stories from the Heart of the Land" and as a result "it's easy to imagine a poetic-but-quirky indie film shot beneath the big skies of the American West." And while it doesn't have lots of improvisation and has a bit of a soundtrack feel to it, French recommends it highly (4 and 1/2 out of five) and suggests that we "dial this one up as you pull onto the highway headed west with a full tank of gas and no real direction in mind." I agree.

First, let me point out that one wonderful little advantage of today's technology: when you load this one up into your Ipod, it loads up as 30 continuous tracks, not two discs. This is particularly cool because this album is really one to listen to as a whole--don't be putting on that "shuffle" feature. This album is a trip to be experienced as a whole rather than in bits and pieces.

The instrumentation and how those instruments are mixed are particularly wonderful. At times you have Frisell with just a guitar wandering through a theme, at other times you have mixes of strings with violin, viola and cello. At other times, you have strings and horns and then you have straight up jazz mixes with sax, trumpet, and a rhythm section.

It begins with songs that have a wonderful sense of beginning an adventure, with a searching feel--the string instrumentation add depth and a certain immigrant (read: klezmer) feel. The feeling grows, not unlike listening to Dvorak's pieces from his time in America--I am crossing Iowa as I hear this music. It culminates two thirds of the way through the first disc in the uplifting Change is Gonna Come as if travellers are celebrating in reaching a destination. But then things turn a bit more introspective and darker (more cello)--as if the future is less certain.

As we enter into the second disc, the music gets a bit more dissonant and fractured as if we have suddenly discovered that this is not a romantic Dvorak piece, but rather we have ended up at our destination and we are in a Flannery O'Connor novel or a Jim Jarmusch movie and Tom Waits is living with us. And then we have resolution as if we have settled in with our life--happy, sad, troubled, beautiful and quirky as life is.

I have to reiterate the Downbeat review here. Take this trip with Frisell and his band--whether in a car of just listening and letting the music take you places. Here are four tracks to try to give you a sense of the movement and feeling of this fine new album.

Probability Cloud
A Change is Gonna Come
Sub-Conscious Lee
Monroe Part 3

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