The last show I saw before the coronavirus restrictions was Bill Frisell, at the Shedd in Eugene, Oregon. This is a good time to talk about Frisell’s role in my musical life. When I was in college, I really started exploring new and experimental music in a fairly serious way. Somewhat surprisingly, I got quite a ways on my own, which given that I didn’t really have friends in high school who were into anything but top 40 music and that didn’t change too much early in college either. But music people do find each other and I eventually met some people who were also exploring lots of interesting music. One very good friend, who remains so today, was very into jazz and was listening to Bill Frisell. This is in the mid 90s. It’s worth noting just how inventive Frisell’s work was at that time. He was putting out album after album, each quite different, of fascinating music. His covers album Have a Little Faith was followed by his great sextet album This Land, an outre Americana album backed with such greats as Don Byron and Curtis Fowlkes. Then he released his astounding Quartet album with Eyvind Kang on violin, Ron Miles on trumpet, and Fowlkes on trombone. Without any traditional rhythm instrument, it was fascinating listening to this band work through these great tunes, many of which Frisell had written for Gary Larson’s Far Side television special that aired in 1994 or 1995. That was followed by his first real exploration into country music, Nashville. I saw him for the first time right before he went into the studio with that album and it was great. Then I saw him in Knoxville with the Quartet band and it was a revelatory, beautiful experience.
Frisell’s increasingly deep exploration of country and Americana did eventually lead to some diminishing returns by the early 2000s. But in the late 2000s, he started incorporating electronics and global musicians into his work and had a revival of great work, especially The Intercontinentals and Unspeakable. There’s been other really interesting work off and on over the years as well–Lebroba (with Andrew Cyrille and Wadada Leo Smith), Gone Just Like a Train, and several others. But while Frisell has been in huge demand as a session musician over the years, much of solo music has become a bit dull and it pains me to say that. He’s still an amazing guitarist. Perhaps no jazz musician has played the silences as well as Frisell since Miles Davis. But he’s moved from interesting and experimental toward pretty, with the Americana and cover work becoming increasingly predictable.
So when I had the chance to see Frisell, for the fifth time, I was curious as to what this would look like. He was playing with Petra Haden on vocals, Hank Roberts on cello (who actually once played at a wedding I attended), and Luke Bergman, also on guitar. And to be honest, it was OK but not all that much better than that. Haden is a great vocalist, so nothing against her, and there was plenty of energy. To some extent, I am just not a big fan of jazz vocals, which may be influencing me here. But when you see a jazz vocalist, especially someone with such a big voice as Haden, you are really seeing their show, not the guitarist. And that was very much the case here, as Frisell mostly was in the background. Roberts and Bergman provided vocals as well. It was interesting enough I guess, but probably not a lineup I need to see again. Mostly, given that it was my last show for a long time, I wish it had been really memorable. And yet, it’s hard for me to think of anyone more influential on my lifetime of listening to music than Frisell.
I had a great run of shows lined up that I was very excited to see. I could have gone to see Screaming Females a few days after the Frisell show, but by that time, I was freaked out about getting my parents sick and so wisely decided to not go to the hot sweaty bar. The biggest bummer of cancelled shows was one of the few shows on the composer Terry Riley’s 85th birthday tour. Alas, that’s one that I highly doubt will be ever happen. Lot of my favorite acts, many of whom have released new albums in early 2019, were coming around as well. Some of those shows have been rescheduled. We will see. It could be awhile.
These are the dark times for all of us and that very much includes musicians. The coronavirus is going to take a lot of greats away from us, especially given that you have a whole aging generation of artists who lived pretty hard and definitely have a lot of preexisting conditions at this point. It looked very bad for John Prine a couple of days ago, but he seems to be stable now, thank God. It’s already taken a toll in the music world. Joe Diffie, certainly not my favorite country artist, but one who was big in the early 90s, is gone at only age 61. So is Alan Merrill, who wrote “I Love Rock and Roll,” which Joan Jett made a huge hit. We’ve also lost the pianist Mike Longo, known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie; Aurlus Mabele, the soukou master from the Congo; and perhaps most importantly for me personally, the amazing Manu Dibango, whose “Soul Makossa” is one of the best of the many great African songs of the 1970s. I don’t want to over focus on the costs to musicians coronavirus is going to cause because I mostly want these posts to be happy, but it still must be noted.
Of course, musicians will still be leaving us for other reasons as well, including Danny Ray Thompson, who long played with the Sun Ra Arkestra. I also thought this was a good overview of Kenny Rogers’ career.
The murder ballad is a long-standing tradition in the Scots-Irish-English folk traditions that became the core of American old-timey and then bluegrass and country music. They are often great songs but also hard to listen to because they basically celebrate violence against women and reinforce a patriarchal society. This is a very interesting piece on women in country music taking control over these narratives and singing the songs themselves, from Mother Maybelle Carter to Dolly Parton to Gillian Welch and many others.
At least with quarantining, some of the major music events and archives are opening up their catalogs. You can watch 50 sets from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Stax is allowing you to explore some material from its archives. Michael Stipe sends us a new demo to help us along. The AV Club does a deep dive on Serge Gainsbourg’s classic and creepy Histoire de Melody Nelson. And of course you’ve read Elizabeth on the crazy new Dylan song.
Album Reviews, mostly clearing the decks on some older stuff I hadn’t gotten to yet:
Richard Thompson, 13 Rivers
I love Richard Thompson more than life, but I haven’t been very aggressive about listening to his new albums in the last decade and then when I do listen to them, once is basically enough. Not that they are bad, but he’s not producing the astounding songs that he did for a mere three decades. Who can blame him? It’s not as if Dylan is either. So I finally decided to hear his 2018 release, 13 Rivers. “The Storm Won’t Come” is a rather dull song to begin the album. “The Rattle Within” is a real nice song to follow it up. And it kind of goes from there. It’s entirely respectable, but never really compelling.
Imam Baildi, III
Imam Baildi is a Greek band that specializes in remixing mid-century Greek songs with modern sounds, including hip-hop. Like a lot of “world music,” this seems pretty calculated intentionally to appeal to liberal western audiences, by which I mean it is perfectly fine, inoffensive, but a bit dull in parts. This is their third album, from 2014, and has been on my to-listen list for a long time. I finally got to it and thought it was semi-interesting, but not really vital.
Elephant Revival, Sands of Now
This Colorado hippie string band with Scots-Irish, gypsy, and Middle Eastern elements is a mainstay of the jam band scene. This album, recorded live in Boulder, is a good representation of them. It’s pleasant enough folk-jam music with interesting arrangements. These are very fine musicians who sing well together. It’s professional quality work. But note that these are pretty rote descriptions because I find the album itself, like the band generally, just moderately interesting.
Tokyo Police Club, Elephant Shell
It’s interesting to go back to late 00’s indie rock and check out something that you missed at the time. The somewhat anthemic rock of that era has aged somewhat wobbly. I was a really big Decemberists fan for awhile and now I feel like their heights were still pretty high, but there’s also plenty of eyerolling moments. Anyway, Tokyo Police Club was a thing for their first couple of albums and the Decemberists comparison is certainly apt as Dave Monks sounds a lot like Colin Meloy. And this holds up as a fairly solid album that’s pretty typical of a particular kind of rock of that era that doesn’t feel that long ago, but is in fact 12 years old.
Dave Douglas Quintet, Brazen Heart: Live at the Jazz Standard
The great trumpeter Dave Douglas plays a critical role in the modern jazz world, a bridge between the real experimental stuff that I like so much and the more traditional and (somewhat) commercially viable mainstream world that to me often sounds like people more or less repeating the second Miles quintet of the mid-60s. Douglas brings the best of both worlds to his work, making him one of the most listenable and interesting musicians of his era. This is an epic four disc set of his 2015-era quintet playing over four nights. That is made up of Jon Irabagon on sax, Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Rudy Roylston on drums. It is a highly rewarding release, showing one of the best bands working at their very peak. The only slight thing I’d say against it is that is very, very, very long and while for archival purposes this is useful, it is a long slog to get through the whole thing.
Ariana Grande, thank u, next
Ariana Grande is such a wonderful pop star, but I have to admit that I thought this album from last year was a bit more subdued than I expected. And yet these are surprisingly personal songs that are developed out of the pop songwriting machine that so often creates bland statements. While I wish she had turned up the intensity a few times here, it’s a solid work from a genuine star.
Little Simz, GREY Area
This impressive album from the London-based rapper is a deep dive into the uncertainly of a black English woman in her mid-20s dealing with both the confusion of adulthood and the social problems that define our age. Sometimes she tears her way through a lyric like a tiger, sometimes she slows it down a bit to contemplate the problems of life. Using most live instrumentation, this is a pretty damn fine work.
Durand Jones and the Indications, American Love Call
The somewhat nostalgic neo-soul movement isn’t always the most inventive, but when well done, it is always enjoyable. Acts such as Leon Bridges or Durand Jones are wearing their influences very much on their sleeve. But not reinventing the wheel is not a negative thing. After all, how much of the best of country music looks back at the past of the 1960s and 1970s? This is a solid effort, mostly around love songs, but also with the very good protest song “Morning in America.”
As always, this is an open thread for all things art and none things politics.