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The Graham Album Review #1795

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Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age
by George Graham

(Okeh Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/25/2014)

The guitar is so ubiquitous in contemporary music, it's hard to stand out playing the instrument. There have been a lot of rock guitar heroes who have become quite famous, though the level of musicianship and originality tends to be relative. A supposedly hot rock guitarist may not have the technique and musical vocabulary as even a moderately good jazz player. Be that as it may, there are those who have managed to stake out their own identity on guitar, whose fans would be usually able to pick him out just by his or her sound and style.

This week we have one of those highly distinctive guitarists whose musical output is about a wide-ranging as his sound is identifiable, Bill Frisell, whose latest release is called Guitar in the Space Age!, noted with an exclamation point.

Best known as a jazz guitarist, the Baltimore born, Denver-bred guitarist first gained wide notice recording for the atmospheric German jazz label ECM. He blended into their sound with his various electronic effects on his electric guitar that helped reinforce the ethereal sound of the ECM records on which he appeared with artists like Jan Garbarek. Frisell also had a long-running association with drummer Paul Motian. After spending much of the 1980s in New York, Frisell has been living the Seattle area for 25 years.

Throughout his career he has not limited himself to jazz, and over the years has created commissioned works for orchestra, and collaborated on record with a number of well-known people in the more mainstream pop world such as Rickie Lee Jones, Suzanne Vega, and Elvis Costello.

One of his interests has been in folk and Americana and he has made a number of recording along those stylistic lines, often working as a studio musician or collaborator. He was also involved with an interesting project called Floratone that was based on samples and loops, whose album we featured in this review series, back in 2007. Other projects include Disfarmer an album of somewhat mutated folk songs or quasi folk songs in 2009, a full album tribute to John Lennon in 2011. And within the last few months, there have been two other recordings on which Frisell was featured prominently, one called The Littlest Prisoner by fiddler Jenny Sheinman, with whom Frisell collaborated on Disfarmer and a CD by banjoist Sam Amidon called Lily-O.

Frisell's own latest project, Guitar in the Space Age! is as its name suggests a collection of music from the early to mid 1960s, when there were a bevy of electric guitar instrumentals and tunes that featured distinctive guitars. The title is doubly appropriate, given Frisell's trademark atmospheric sound, often taking tunes that were twangy guitar rockers and giving them a more ethereal treatment. Frisell's collaborators on the album are steel guitar specialist Greg Leisz, who is about as eclectic as Frisell, and who has collaborated with Frisell on several albums. Tony Scherr is the bassist on electric and acoustic bass and Kenny Wolleson is on drums. Both are active studio players with many albums to their credit.

This generous 55-minute, 14-track album features creative versions of some of the old twangy guitar instrumentals such as Apache and Telstar plus instrumental versions of some vocal tunes from that period by the Byrds, the Kinks, the Beach Boys and others. Frisell almost always manages to add some interesting twists to the familiar-to-baby-boomers tunes, though there are a couple of pieces on the album that Frisell was just not able to get much out of. He does really well with the compositions that were instrumental to begin with, often combining his creative sonic approach with some harmonic alterations that make the tunes more interesting, instead of the simple repetitiveness of rock & roll.

The CD opens with one of its most brilliant tracks, the classic surf rock guitar instrumental Pipeline originally recorded by the Chantays in 1962, definitely in the midst of the Space Age. This tune has been covered several times lately, including an solo acoustic guitar version by Pat Metheny, but Frisell and company preserve the basic sound of the tune, but add lots of subtle touches like harmonic alterations and of course, the interesting and pleasingly atmospheric quality for which Frisell is known. <<>>

Also strongly evoking the 1960s is the song Turn Turn Turn, written by Pete Seeger, but Frisell draws on the jangly 12-string electric guitar sound made famous by the Byrds' version of the tune. Frisell layers the guitars, while Greg Leisz' steel guitar is both prominent and an excellent fit. <<>>

Somewhat less successful is the album's version of the Beach Boys' Surfer Girl. The original tune was heavy on vocal harmonies and so the spacey guitar and steel , taken at the slow tempo does not create much excitement. <<>>

There are two original pieces on the album designed to echo the sound of the early 1960s. The Shortest Day is another slow tune but its contemplative nature is another excellent fit for the instrumental context of the album. <<>>

One of the great practitioners of twangy guitar back in the day was Duane Eddy, who had a number of instrumental guitar list. His tune Rebel Rouser is taken at an easy, loping pace while drummer Kenny Wolleson gives it a kind of Nashville touch. <<>>

A classic country instrumental is also included in the album, Merle Travis' Cannonball Rag which the group also does at a relaxed pace, while steel player Greg Leisz lays on the twang. <<>>

Another Surf Rock tune that is given an interesting touch that still maintains the original texture of the tune is Baja written by Lee Hazlewood, and which was a minor hit in 1963 for a band called The Astronauts, appropriate for this album. It's another highlight. <<>>

The album ends with my favorite old twangy guitar tune from back in the day, Telstar by the British band the Tornados which were a creation of the eccentric British producer Joe Meek. As on the rest of this album Frisell and company dial back the rock impulse and take it at an easy-going tempo, but add enough sonic atmospherics that it gives the tune distinctive twist. <<>>

Bill Frisell's new CD Guitar in the Space Age! is another creative and enjoyable album by one of the most distinctive and eclectic guitarists on the scene who can easily move between jazz, country rock & roll and traditional folk. This new CD is a kind of celebration of the twangy electric guitar of the early 1960s, to which Frisell and company add a more atmospheric quality, making the album's title appropriate in two ways. Most of the material is enhanced by the musical imagination shown on the record, but some of the tunes were not that great to begin with, so it was harder to be creative with them. But it does make for great listening.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The guitar sound is excellent, and the atmospheric quality is very nicely handled, with the effects kept in check. The dynamic range, how the recording maintains the differences between the loud and soft passages is decent but not exceptional.

Over the years, there have been a lot of electric guitar albums going back to the "space age" of the album's title, with groups like the Ventures covering hit songs by other artists. This CD also carries on that tradition, but also embodies a lot of creativity.

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