Bill Frisell – Guitar in the Space Age! [TrackList follows] – Okeh/Sony Music

by | Nov 29, 2014 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Bill Frisell – Guitar in the Space Age! [TrackList follows] – Okeh/Sony Music Masterworks 88843074612, 55:08 [10/7/14] ****:

(Bill Frisell – electric guitar; Greg Leisz – pedal steel guitar, electric guitar; Tony Scherr – bass, acoustic guitar (track 7); Kenny Wollesen – drums, percussion, vibes)

Anyone who thinks they have guitarist Bill Frisell pegged can put expectations into the cupboard. On his latest effort, the nearly hour-long Guitar in the Space Age!, Frisell trumps what fans might presume about his output. Over the course of 14 tracks, Frisell and his quartet—pedal steel player Greg Leisz (who also adds electric guitar), bassist Tony Scherr (who also plays acoustic guitar on one cut) and drummer/vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen—pushes backwards to the Baby Boomer era. Frisell composed two numbers, the others are recreations, reclamations and reinterpretations of songs Frisell (who turned 63 this year) grew up with or later embraced, including rock music by the Kinks and the Byrds; surf music by the Beach Boys and the Chantays; country material by Merle Travis and others; instrumental rock hits by the Tornados and Link Wray; and much more from the late-‘50s through the mid-‘60s.

This being a Frisell record, nostalgia is tempered by Frisell’s inventive outlook, and peppered by his multi-decade musical viewpoint. Yes, there is much which will be familiar to many, but Frisell and his longtime musical allies align each tune into something refreshing and purely Frisell. Frisell explains during a six-minute online promotional video that, “It’s really about the feeling of possibility. And that just fed directly into the music and what was happening with the music at that time. For me, that’s what music has always been about. You never get to the end of it. Whatever you play, it creates a new kaleidoscope of some other infinite possibilities.” This idea is revealed on the opener, the iconographic surf music hit “Pipeline,” made famous by the Chantays. Instead of proceeding into the usually fast-paced arrangement, Frisell decelerates the stride to pinpoint the knotty melody and harmonics. Scherr and Wollesen precisely slant the rhythm so the tune heads into atmospheric, post-bop—but make no mistake, the underpinning remains sand and sun, even if the coloring is a bit different. Frisell’s reading of Brian Wilson’s melancholy “Surfer Girl” is pleasingly sublime. For Frisell, the song touches on boyhood in more than one way, “The first record I ever bought was this single by the Beach Boys, featuring ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ on one side and ‘Surfer Girl’ on the other. Oh, man, those harmonies on ‘Surfer Girl’ just gave me chills.” Frisell plays the Beach Boys music straight down the middle, while Leisz provides a congenial, country ambiance via pedal steel guitar. The result makes one imagine what might transpire if Frisell decided to do a full album of Wilson’s compositions. Frisell’s roots are in Denver (this year he collaborated with Denver friend and fellow musician Ron Miles on Miles’ newest project, Circuit Rider). So, it makes sense Frisell also takes on the Astronauts’ surf-music piece “Baja” (written by Lee Hazelwood), since the group was from Boulder, Colorado. Hazelwood was prominently linked to Duane Eddy, one of the top guitarists of the original rock and roll generation. Frisell escalates the country proclivity of Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” (a million-selling single in its day), while never losing sight of the cut’s important swagger and twang, and also exposes the underlying melodic theme which Eddy and Hazelwood borrowed from the gospel tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Frisell fans are aware of his adoration of country music, which has graced numerous albums. Here, he tackles Travis’ “Cannonball Rag,” done by myriad country players, from Chet Atkins to Doc Watson. Frisell’s version begins gradual but effortlessly spins into a zippy arrangement which has echoes of the pop standard, “Brazil.”  But two specific pieces are readymade for Frisell’s transformative skills and perspective, both associated with Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, a Los Angeles-based duo who conceived, for want of a better term, space age bachelor pad country music: enduring and forward-looking country music light years away from the Nashville style. First, Frisell covers the late-night and lamenting “Reflections from the Moon,” appending a jazz accent while also stressing West’s progressive harmonic structure. Then the foursome gets into a reeling good time on the stimulating “Bryant’s Boogie,” where early ‘40s country swing is updated. Other adaptations comprise an appropriately ringing rendering of the Byrds’ Pete Seeger-penned “Turn, Turn, Turn”; a twang-and-blues run through Link Wray’s “Rumble,” with some serious tremolo action and rock and roll backbeat; and a thoughtful expansion of Ray Davies’ “Tired of Waiting for You,” which shifts to a country/folk foundation.  Guitar in the Space Age! is an exuberant recording which is significantly more than ordinary nostalgia. Frisell’s rethink of well-known music illustrates why many of these selections are timeless.

TrackList: Pipeline; Turn,Turn, Turn; Messin’ with the Kid; Surfer Girl; Rumble; The Shortest Day; Rebel Rouser; Baja; Cannonball Rag; Tired of Waiting for You; Reflections from the Moon; Bryant’s Boogie; Lift Off; Telstar.

—Doug Simpson

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