By Jeff Cebulski
Over the pandemic period, the still prolific guitarist Bill Frisell was represented on four notable albums: his trio recording Valentine, Gregoire Moret and Romain Collin’s heartland-ish Americana, last year’s Four, as well as Julian Lage’s View With a Room.
While Valentine (with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer/percussionist Rudy Royston) was a sometimes abstract but fairly straight-ahead postmodern excursion, Four comes closer to chamber jazz, but here with four players and no bass. I hesitate to call Frisell’s selections “songs”; I’d rather consider them “themes,” as his ensemble music suggests back-up instrumentation for movies, especially those “Heartland” stories with references to place and history.
In fact, Four was prepared by a notebook of unfinished ideas collected during the pandemic, with an emphasis on remembrance and tribute. As his own tribute to their expertise, Frisell is often comfortable being a supportive player to three stellar mates: Gregory Tardy on tenor sax and clarinet, Gerald Clayton on piano, and the nearly-as-ubiquitous Johnathan Blake on drums. With 13 songs in less than an hour, the album is short on extended improvisation but long in tightly contrived musings on Frisell’s fragmented themes.
As for Frisell’s notable ‘twang’ sound, it is more pronounced in pieces like the ironically abstract “Blues from Before” and the plodding but brightly played closer “Dog on a Roof.” Otherwise, the tone of tribute and reminiscence is provided by Tardy’s clarinet, such as on the poignant opener, “Dear Old Friend (for Alan Woodard).” The following tune, “Claude Utley,” is opened by a lovely but pensive duet between Clayton and the laid back-but-intense support of Blake, before Tardy and Frisell arrive to pronounce the theme that ultimately leads to a quiet group intensity that was suggested at the start by Blake.
Sometimes the titles predict themes: “The Pioneers” begins with a neo-Western cum spiritual statement from Tardy and Frisell; “Always” is a plaintive piano solo refrain that implies a lovely but wistful memory; ”Good Dog, Happy Man” is playful, with Blake’s spare but lively percussion enhancing the group’s version of a fun moment, perhaps a ball-chasing in the backyard.
Bill Frisell’s niche in jazz and related genres seems always steeped in symbolism, yet his constant appearances on his own and others recordings continues to enhance artistic expression. It’s not hard to recommend any of it.
Bill Frisell. Four. Blue Note, 2022.
Bill Frisell, guitar
Gerald Clayton, piano
Gregory Tardy, tenor sax and clarinet
Johnathan Blake, drums and percussion