Like Kerouac in his fire tower, last year Bill Frisell headed off alone to the mountain retreat of the Glen Deven Ranch to see what he could see – internally and externally. The offer of 10 solitary days in one of our most majestic locales came from a Monterey Jazz Festival commission for new work that was to celebrate Big Sur’s breathtaking blend of earth and ocean. Sometimes the muse is sparked by isolation, and the 19 pieces resulting from the guitarist’s stay are some of his most fetching music ever, by turns forlorn, giddy, stately, spiritual, and frolicsome.
The band Frisell built to deliver these nuggets combines his 858 Quartet and Beautiful Dreamers trio – four string players and a drummer. Together they stress their skills at establishing moods in a matter of moments. Plucking and bowing a circular pattern on “Hawks,” violinist Jenny Scheinman, cellist Hank Roberts, and violist Eyvind Kang manage to conjure the swooping and darting of a sky dance; birds of prey as ballerinas. Frisell’s instrument adds shimmer, Rudy Royston’s traps provide punch. As a cinematic event, it’s irresistible. “Somewhere” could be the opposite - an examination of self just as much as it is a reflection of region. Twang guitar, luminous strings, wavy high-hat. The process of introspection captured in sound.
It’s perfect Frisell logic to hang ten in the middle of a pastoral outing. “The Big One” finds him with his binoculars out, checking the surfers across the Coast Highway. A bastardization of “Wipe Out” and the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Back Down,” it injects pop energy into the folksy song cycle.
That’s the way it should be, of course. From exotic fauna to unique animal life to the mysteries of the Pacific, the coastal wilderness is an exalted area with myriad personality traits. Somewhere around my twentieth spin the program started to remind me of the Nutcracker Suite – each track quickly establishing a resonant identity. Whether it’s the sunset sentiment of “We All Love Neil Young” or the echoes of Nino Rota in the title cut, each makes its mark as an earworm. Frisell has done for Big Sur what Ellington did for Harlem – celebrated its pluralism and revealed the poetry of its essence.