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A short break for the holidays

It’s between Christmas and New Year’s, and, try as I might, I just can’t get it together to post a proper blog. I’ve actually got one ready to go but don’t have access to it.

I’ve been listening to my usual holiday favourites for the last month or so: Sufjan Stevens’ first seasonal box set of EPs, Low’s holiday EP, the Roches, a great concert recording from Toronto in the 1990s with Mary Margaret O’Hara, Holly Cole, Victoria Williams, Jane Siberry and Rebecca Jenkins. There’s more and more Christmas music all the time, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Low’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” is enough to hold me. Thanks.

I did listen to the new Sufjan Stevens box set, Silver & Gold, on NPR’s First Listen. It’s been up the whole month and was still there the last I looked. I’m guessing it’ll be down come January. It’s pretty good, though it has a bit more of an electronic feel than the first set of Christmas EPs.

Anyway, here’s to the holidays and to a brighter 2013. Cheers.

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Whatever will be will be

Some things just aren’t meant to be. Back in 2007, after I’d moved back from Toronto to the West Coast, I was supposed to fly to Toronto in March for the farewell show of my favourite band, the Rheostatics, at the famed Massey Hall.

Instead, I was stuck in a hospital bed in my hometown recuperating from a serious gastrointestinal disorder (Too much info, I know). I was despondent and couldn’t listen to the band for more than a year. I have still yet to bring myself to check out any video clips on YouTube from the show.

You can imagine my excitement then when I learned via the band’s Facebook page that the original group was reforming for two nights, Dec. 5 and 6, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Toronto’s famed Horseshoe Tavern.

At first, I hedged, then I told myself I had to at least try to go. Within an hour or so after the tickets went on sale, I bought a ticket online for the second night, found a relatively cheap flight and booked a hostel room.

Something though was tempering my enthusiasm. I knew deep down not to get excited until this thing actually happened, and sure enough, on Monday, there was a Facebook update via member Dave Bidini that the band, despite sounding great in rehearsals, could not go through with the reunion shows because lead guitarist Martin Tielli was unable to perform. (There is talk online that it is a result of serious performance anxiety, though nothing was confirmed. Bidini said he might talk about it in his National Post column.)

As bummed out as I was, I wasn’t as crushed the second time around. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone is missing the show too. Maybe it’s that I feel for Martin, whatever the actual reason is. Maybe it’s the fact that my crazy life recently just got crazier and suddenly missing a concert – even a Rheostatics’ one – does not seem as important as it would under normal circumstances. (For the record, I think the last time I had anything resembling a normal life was around 2003/2004.)

Anyway, I’m still going to plough through my Rheos’ collection and remember why I love this band so much and recall how lucky I was to see them four times, especially the first time at the Town Pump in Vancouver when I barely got in.

On the off chance Martin is reading this, we still love you, even if you “sing like a woman.” (It’s an inside joke from their last album.)

America’s got Bobby Previte

Bobby Previte is a crack drummer, composer and bandleader who’s been at the forefront of modern jazz and the improvised music scene for about 35 years.

All this doesn’t make one a household name though, as he discovered recently. On his Facebook page the other day, I ran across the following development, amusing to say the least.

Bobby Previte, future reality TV star? (Photo credit, Michael DiDonna)

He’d only just stuck up a link to his Bandcamp page. (Bandcamp is a website independent musicians use to market their wares.) Within five hours, he received a message via Facebook:

“Found you on BandCamp (sic) and love your sound. Reaching out to see if you would be interested in auditioning for America’s Got Talent Season 8. If so, please let me know. We begin auditions in Seattle, Portland, & Los Angeles in November; Virginia Beach, Raleigh, Nashville, Mephis (sic), Birmingham, Savannah, Daytona Beach in December. If you’re interested, I can let you know as soon as we release the dates and audition information. More info can be found at: americasgottalentauditions.com.”

Then he learned some bad news on the FAQ page informing him of the limitations for drummers. In short, the TV show recommends that drummers audition via DVD because of the time it takes to set up a kit; however, if he wanted to audition in person, he could bring a stripped down set, i.e. snare drum and hi-hat. In case he hadn’t gotten the message, the FAQ page continues: NO SET UP TIME WILL BE ALLOWED!

Previte’s tongue-in-cheek take on the lack of respect for drummers? “The best part is, two separate questions for ‘musical instrument’ and for ‘drum set.’ Ah yes, it never ends. My father was right. I should have become a dentist.”

As you can imagine, his Facebook friends peppered the page with comments over the absurdity of Previte appearing on reality TV.

The DVD idea got me thinking about the Robert Altman film Short Cuts and one of the subplots following a faded nightclub singer. The backing band was made up of a stellar cast, such as Terry Adams of NRBQ on piano and a familiar face behind the drum kit.

I posted the following to Previte on Facebook. “Maybe you can send them a copy of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.”

“THAT is genius!” Previte replied.

When I first started listening to Previte, I always got the sense that he was an intense guy, not one you would naturally crack a joke around. About 10 years ago though, he held a clinic at a local college music program prior to a show in Vancouver. I think I was the only person there who wasn’t a student. What impressed me was what an enthusiastic speaker and affable guy he was. Instead of droning on about paradiddles and flams, or showing off his rudiments, he talked about music that inspired him like Sly and the Family Stone or Led Zeppelin. He was also happy to sign my copy of Pushing the Envelope, one of his early recordings as a bandleader. (I highly recommend any of his Gramavision releases, if you can get your digits on them, though there is plenty of other fine music available.)

Besides his drumming talents, he’s a fine composer who’s explored many types of music: Weather Clear, Track Fast was a greasy organ- and horn-heavy band; Empty Suits was more artsy, influenced by contemporary classical music among other things; projects like The Coalition of the Willing or his Groundtruther duo with Charlie Hunter could be described as avant-garde rock. Then there’s his work backing other musicians, from John Zorn to Tom Waits. (If all this doesn’t convince you, maybe the Guggenheim Fellowship he received earlier this year will.)

The odds of an audition are pretty low, I’d say, but America should know that it does have some serious talent in the form of Bobby Previte, and it’s refreshing that popular culture and reality television came so close to waking up to this fact.

Spinning on an oversized LP in space

Some people roll their eyes at the avant-garde, but I think it’s because they’ve lost their inner child or their sense of humour.

Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal that launched Dadaism, should’ve been a clue from the very start. (A 2008 article in the Telegraph suggests it was intended as a practical joke.) Not that everything avant-garde is supposed to be humourous, but it should cast the world in a slightly different light, make things even just the slightest bit askew.

Recently, I had the chance to check out a local exhibit called Seeing Sound by Canadian composer and sound artist Gordon Monahan. I knew nothing of his work before the show, but it was a real ear opener.

The local exhibit was one of nine sites across Canada as well as in Berlin that, between 2011 and 2013, is presenting different works from throughout his career.

Even before I entered the gallery at the U of S, I was struck by the weather-beaten upright piano propped outside the building. It was connected by wires, which looked like enormous guitar strings, to some of kind of transmitter on the roof, and if you listened closely to “A Piano Listening to Itself,” you could hear music recordings being transmitted along the lines.

A Piano Listening to Itself

This was simply the introduction to what lay inside. In one room, there was a series of found objects, “Sounds Objectified,” each with recordings of themselves inserted into their bodies: a photocopier, a VCR, popcorn maker, spare tire, even an old door. To put it another way, each object, in effect, becomes a package for its own sound.

I almost missed the downstairs portion of the exhibit, which would’ve been a shame. Once there, I was attracted by some ambient noise and started wandering down a tunnel to another part of the campus, realizing after I turned a corner that this was not some installation piece but simply a tunnel. Again, one must have a sense of humour about these things.

I made a U-turn and entered the actual lower portion of the exhibit. There was a video, “Piano Airlift,” of an old installation piece in Newfoundland, where Monahan and team move an old piano by helicopter to a hilltop. For its duration, the winds activated the piano strings to produce sounds along the lines of an Aeolian harp. The piece literally came to a crashing crescendo when the piano was given the heave-ho over the cliff.

At the other end of the space, in a blackened room was “Theremin Pendulum.” (If you’ve don’t know what a theremin is, cue up the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for that aha moment). The shrill beast inside was covered in blue lights that swung on a pendulum in the dark, as it let loose its cry. For some reason, the thing reminded me of a deranged planetarium projector or maybe the monster in Alien. I admit the thing was a little creepy.

The residual noise from it almost ruined my experience of what was my favourite piece, “A Very Large LP Constructed in Acoustic Space.” Once the theremin quieted down from its thrashing about in the next room, I could appreciate the “LP” installation fully. I should point out it did not involve any large piece of vinyl. Rather, Monahan arranged eight loudspeakers in a circle around the room. I sat back on the seat at the centre, closed my eyes and absorbed the sounds of scratches and snatches of old easy listening records (Mantovani, if I had to guess) fading in and out, as they travelled from speaker to speaker in circles, alternating between clockwise and counter-clockwise directions. As the artist said of the piece, “I immediately felt the illusion that I was sitting in the middle of a very large vinyl LP that was constructed in acoustic space.”

This is exactly what it felt like, and honestly I probably could’ve sat there for an hour or two, tripping out on these sound collages as they wound their way in space around me.

Feel free to dismiss all of this, assume it’s ivory tower elitism, but you’d be wrong. Think of these artists as kids experimenting with their own box of crayons to see what will come out. (If you ask me, it’s pop stars like Madonna that take themselves way too seriously.)

You may also ask yourself, “What does this noise have to do with me?” The thing is some of this crazy stuff has a way of working itself into the mainstream. If you don’t hear the musique concrète in Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Stockhausen’s electronic work throughout the Beatles’ more experimental efforts, you need to do some homework. (While I’m on my soapbox, can we give Sir Paul some love? Macca is one underrated bass player, has an ear for melody rare among rock songwriters and was the real workhorse who pushed the Beatles to go in so many new musical directions.)

As far as Gordon Monahan’s works, who knows? Maybe some buzz band out there will check him out and let his creations seep into their own songs. Seriously, the avant-garde isn’t all that scary, “Theremin Pendulum” being the exception. It can provide a fountain full of interesting ideas, though I doubt that this was, in fact, Monsieur Duchamp’s intent concerning his famed piss pot.

Prog rock: of pomp and circumstance

The author acknowledges that this blog is too long and indulgent, but really how else could one tackle the topic of progressive rock?

If I haven’t admitted already, I confess now that I was a teenage prog rock nerd.
If you need a reminder of what “prog” rock was, I’ll take you back to a time long ago in which gargantuan acts like ELP and Yes ruled the earth, filling arenas with their epic space age/mythological tales and classical-leaning experimentations. Or pretensions, depending on your point of view.

King Crimson’s debut was one of the early highlights of prog.

When I was a teen, I loved the stuff. The pre-Abacab Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, etc. It was commonly referred to as “art rock” then, though the changing lexicon might point to the genre’s decline. It doesn’t even warrant the full word “progressive” now. (“Art” in rock now typically refers to post-rock acts like TV on the Radio or Arcade Fire, decent enough bands, though quite different from the subject of this blog.)

Part of my prog love stemmed from how much I loathed most mainstream music of the early ’80s. (Still do. Add Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney here in Canada, brainless action movies, male perms, rugby pants and flipped-up preppy collars, and I’d could pretty much do without the whole era. Bury ’80s retro in a time capsule, I say, and shred the map.)

Prog rock felt like an escape. However, by my twenties, I was listening to post-punk bands, avant-garde jazz and old Brit folk rockers. (Still do.) My old prog LPs suddenly seemed the epitome of uncool, so off I went to the used record shop, bundle in hand. I had to agree with the critics. Much of the stuff had been indulgent, pompous, self-important, escapist.

Yet, as writer David Weigel suggests in his recent series for Slate.com, prog in its own way was revolutionary, a reaction to critics of the day who dismissed rock musicians as capable of little more than rudimentary, three-chord, four-four time dance pop (which there’s nothing wrong with).

Through much of the ’70s, prog was enormous. However, towards the end of the decade, it went from selling out arenas and loads of records to all but disappearing. The world, it seemed, had moved on.

As Weigel points out, prog rock has been all but ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Genesis provides the exception, though probably as much for its awful, 1980s pop songs) as well as in critical best-of lists from the likes of Rolling Stone. (Apparently, Jann Wenner hated it. The same was said of punk though, as the writers at his mag had to battle to get any recognition for punk rockers.)

Through his five-part series, Weigel provides an amusing, sympathetic yet clear-eyed look at prog, from its genesis up to its armageddon, which in un-prog-like fashion, ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Part 1 looks at the early days of prog through the eyes of Keith Emerson and his proto-prog band, the Nice.

Part 2 offers a good overview of the elements and origins of prog.

Part 3 is one fan’s view of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert at Madison Square Garden – “the greatest, loudest, most ridiculous concert of 1973.”

Part 4 looks at the pure pomp of Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans and its subsequent tour – a fine example of the kind of excess that doomed art rock.

Part 5 is a kind of travel piece about a last-ever art rock fest that offers a glimpse at the aftermath of prog’s collapse and at the remaining believers.

Along the way, we’re treated to floating pianos, $5,000 Persian rugs and rotating drum kits, a great story about how a mid-performance chowdown of chicken vindaloo helped seal Rick Wakeman’s fate in Yes, and a recipe for what Weigel suggests might be the proggiest prog song ever, King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic (Part II).” (Prog songs, or suites, often contain many sections, a little like Weigel’s Slate series!)

Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans forms the basis for much of part 4 of the Slate series.

There are a few other nuggets thrown in: slide shows of old advertisements for prog rock bands and album covers, a who’s who of prog and a playlist of suggested tunes. (Note: you will not need dancing shoes.)

Weigel (who, like myself, is ambivalent about prog) shows clearly why the music collapsed under its massive weight. Yet when I ponder most of the criticism, I could easily direct the same claims against other brands of rock and roll.

Pomp was hardly confined to prog during the 1970s, as everyone from Elton John to Alice Cooper to George Clinton and the P-Funk mob was putting on ridiculous, over-the-top stage productions. These, so it is said, still occasionally happen.

Sure, many of the prog bands played endless, indulgent solos, but so did the Allman Brothers (successfully) and others (less successfully) that have suffered less scorn than prog rockers. (I’m tempted to cite a well-known Bay area band here whose appeal I’ve never understood, but I don’t want this to turn into a bitchfest.)

The obvious prog standout is Pink Floyd, and I think practising restraint when it came to soloing only helped them. If they lacked the technical abilities of other prog bands, they were far superior music-makers.

It’s also fair to say that prog was escapist. That was kind of the point, but so is much music. How else can we explain the fact that while England was in the midst of something as “revolutionary” as punk (in part a reaction to prog), it so quickly made a sharp right turn politically? Apparently, the Pistols’ influence extended to Anglo music and fashion but not much further.

Weigel gets to what has probably relegated prog rock to the delete bins of history: that it refused to be rock or pop music that one could sing along with easily or dance to at all. It was, of course, derived more from classical (or to a lesser degree jazz) than more popular idioms. As Weigel makes clear, despite North American acts that flirted with prog like Rush and Kansas, or a few in Europe, the music really was unrepentantly English (as opposed to, say, punk, which is an American form). In its early years, it was kind of a revolution against the confines of the pop song, and like many revolutions, it did not end well. By the end of ’70s, the world was leaving it behind.

As Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill laments in Weigel’s final article, the record companies that allowed the bands to experiment during the early years, suddenly clamped down and turned their attentions elsewhere (disco, new wave). Few bands adapted. Some like Genesis or Yes went for a more concise, even poppy sound (the latter to the extent of adding the Buggles of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame to the band at one point), and sometimes the results were commercial hits. The “supergroup” Asia had a short run of success in the early 1980s, though the music was poor, by either prog or pop criteria. A handful like King Crimson or Peter Gabriel did take up the challenge with interesting results, making music both innovative yet far more stripped down than their previous work.

The odd thing is, although few will come out and openly say it, prog still has a bit of influence. When you listen to the Flaming Lips, you can’t miss the Pink Floyd, and if you’re not hearing any Jethro Tull in a band like the Decemberists, you’re not listening very hard. Or you’ve never heard Jethro Tull, which is quite conceivable.

In retrospect, when one uncorks vintage prog rock these days, it’s obvious much has spoiled in the bottle, but there are times when I do miss that sense of adventure from the early to middle years of bands like Yes, King Crimson or Genesis, and I have to admit a couple of those old records might have found their way back into my music collection, despite my best intentions.

Twilight of the recording industry

One of the things I appreciate about being Canadian is the never-ending source of information and entertainment I get from CBC Radio. This past weekend, I was listening to The Sunday Edition, and during the last hour the show ran the first of a five-part series, Twilight of the Gods, looking at the history of recorded music. I’m a music geek anyway (this should be obvious), so I had to tune in.

CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition is now playing a five-part series on the history of recording.

The introductory episode, “The Dawn,” opens with series host Robert Harris visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J., site of Edison’s home and lab. Edison’s invention of the phonograph didn’t turn out as he’d envisioned. He viewed the technology as something between the telephone and telegraph, and hoped to create a kind of early dictation device to record sounds onto wax cylinders. However, musical applications were where the future lay.

The documentary talks about the cultural shift that resulted from the phonograph, and later the gramophone. There was a democratizing aspect to all this, as music could now be heard outside of concert halls. However, some at the time had a different point of view over the fact that listening to music could now be an entirely solitary act inside one’s own home instead of something in the public realm.

There were those who felt taking music exclusively out of performance venues was somehow turning it into another commodity, something that could be bought and sold like other art forms such as painting or books, something that could now be possessed.

Many times I’ve wondered about the extent to which the commodification of music has affected the numbers of people that take up an instrument. No longer reliant on the piano in the living room or a guitar by the campfire for their enjoyment, many people now experience music passively.

The second half of “The Dawn” examines the development of recording as a commercial enterprise. Edison, it turns out, had little business sense when it came to recordings until it was something he could no longer ignore, as people had started playing record to customers who’d shell out a nickel for the privilege of tuning in.

Later, another inventor, Emile Berliner, working with Edison ended up creating disks as kind of an afterthought, but these turned out to be more durable products than Edison’s old cylinders and could be mass-produced more easily, giving the world something far closer to the record as we know it.

However, it took another man later working for Berliner to understand the real potential of these records as mass-market items. Eldridge Johnson devised a way to improve the sound and volume capacity of the records and also understood what the record-buying public wanted to hear, specifically stars such as Caruso. As the program makes clear, few remember Johnson’s name now, but any music lover will know his business, which became RCA Victor, and its famed mascot, the little dog Nipper.

I’m curious as to where the next episodes of Twilight of the Gods will take me. True to CBC form, the show is ripe with endless clips of old recordings harkening back to the early days of recording.

As an endnote, I’ll point out that I missed some of the actual radio broadcast but was later able to hear the program in its entirety via the CBC website. It makes me wonder what Edison, Berliner or Johnson would’ve made of this brave new world of digital recording.

The Superman of the electric guitar

Nation music critic Gene Santoro once described the bespectacled, mild-mannered Bill Frisell as “the Clark Kent of the electric guitar.” A fitting description for an ordinary-looking guy who could probably walk down any street unnoticed. When you hear him play, however, there is no mistaking one of the most recognizable voices on guitar to emerge in a long time.

The Clark Kent of the electric guitar (photo, billfrisell.com)

This weekend, I’ll be heading to see Bill Frisell for the sixth time (seventh, if I count a wonderful show he played backing Robin Holcomb in 1990). He’ll be showcasing work from his latest record, All We Are Saying, in which he reinterprets the songs of John Lennon.

I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was about five years old, and Frisell is probably my favourite musician on the planet, but in spite of this recipe, I can’t say the record is one of my Frisell favourites. It’s fine, but somehow I wish he’d pushed things more on this one, maybe been a little less faithful to the original songs. Nonetheless, a fair Frisell record still beats most music that’s out there. The one thing that makes All We Are Saying a bit of departure is that it has a less American feel than much of his catalogue.

For the last 20-plus years, Frisell has explored the roots of all forms of American music. At one point I was hoping to interview him on the subject of Americana. Unfortunately, the publication for which I was writing didn’t have enough cachet, so no luck. I did get to review the show he was playing in Vancouver however.

Still, I knew my idea was a good one, and frankly I’ve been surprised over the years that jazz writers weren’t picking up on the theme. Finally, late last year, NPR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead wrote an overview, “Bill Frisell’s Pan-Americana,” for emusic.com. He doesn’t interview Frisell, but he does offer a good introduction to Frisell’s key records from the 1980s up to his recent work, and while he dwells on the roots influences in the guitar player’s works, he also cites the many other musical styles.

Frisell started as an ethereal player on ECM Records working with the label’s atmospheric music-makers like saxophonist Jan Garbarek. At the same time, he also worked in a post-bop trio led by drumming legend Paul Motion (who passed away last year).

Before long, Frisell was a fixture in – for lack of a better term – New York’s downtown scene, playing with Bobby Previte, Tim Berne and, of course, John Zorn. The latter’s band, Naked City, flickered for too brief a time, but it left some serious scorch marks. The quintet’s fast motion jump cuts and genre-smashing remain unchallenged. Zorn, Frisell and the rest of the group would try more things in the space of one short composition than most musicians do in a lifetime. Think I’m exaggerating? Listen the self-titled album on Nonesuch or Radio on Avant. Any band you listen to after will sound ordinary.

All this says nothing about Frisell’s extraordinary solo career, which at many points has often seemed like a musical catalogue of America, covering everything from bebop to jazz-skronk to classical to pop to country to folk…you get the idea. His sounds are as big, varied and expansive as the nation in which he lives, and he’s mastered the use of effects pedals like no one else.

To get a sense of the range of Frisell’s work, you should read the Whitehead article. The best I can do here is provide a glimpse into the half dozen or so solo works that, to me, sum up the man’s work best.

Before We Born: His debut on Elektra (though on the Musician subsidiary, not Nonesuch). Along with Zorn’s Naked City album and Hal Willner’s tribute albums, this album did more to shatter my preconceptions about labeling types of music than anything else I’d heard before or since. His sound here is hard, distorted, angular yet transcendent. Around this time some critics were describing Frisell’s sound as a mix of his idols Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix, and it fits. The Zorn-arranged “High Plains Drifter” is a fine example of the kind of genre-smashing these guys were doing at the time, and while the sound here is definitely New York downtown, the whole album hints at the western motifs that Frisell would use regularly, right down to his cover art, ever since. One of my favourite guitar albums.

Have a Little Faith: If you own one Frisell album, this should be it. I’m not big on superlatives, but for me, Have a Little Faith is the record of the 1990s. With a stellar quintet featuring Don Byron on clarinet, Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, Guy Klucevsek on accordion and the inimitable Joey Baron on drums, Frisell guides us through a historical tour of the best in American music: Charles Ives, Sonny Rollins, the John Hiatt title track, Muddy Waters, John Philip Sousa, Stephen Foster and, yes, even Madonna. Even if the rest of the album stunk, this would still be worth owning for Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite, which eats up the opening 20 minutes. Superlative.

Quartet: After Joey Baron lit out for the territories on his own, Frisell stopped using drummers for a while. This first post-Baron offering was a gem, a piece of quiet chamber jazz with some beautiful Frisell originals. Another one of his best. Moody, quiet, a little confusing, like that moment you’re aware you’re dreaming just before you wake. Several of the tracks made their way on to soundtrack for a Gary Larson TV special, Tales from the Far Side. The Thomas Hart Benton painting on the cover is a nice touch of Americana.

Nashville: Again going drum-less, Frisell opted to work with some crack session players from Music City for the aptly titled Nashville. But unlike so much contemporary country, which sounds like watered-down rock, this music is traditional, often in a bluegrass vein or occasionally veering into Ry Cooder roots territory. I think there was a big debate in Downbeat magazine at the time as to whether this should have been eligible for votes as best “jazz” recording, but I don’t think Frisell cares much for labels.

The Intercontinentals: Some regulars show up here, but this time out, Frisell has a few guests from far away. Again, like so much of what Frisell does, it’s hard to classify this as “jazz.” It’s really more of a world beat album. At times, it reminds me a little of Cooder’s work with African guitarist Ali Farka Toure; at others, like something by Caetano Veloso.

Unspeakable: My favourite Frisell album from the last 10 years, this one was produced by Hal Willner and features loads of Willner samples. It’s not hip-hop, but it taps the same roots. Early on, Frisell veers dangerously close to what I call “jazz whiz” (i.e. smooth jazz, that syrupy concoction of soul, funk and jazz improvisation; kind of like what Cheez Whiz is to cheese) but then he pulls back. With Kenny Wolleson in the drum chair now, this music is often funky, at other times evocative of old Stax soul, but as it moves on, Frisell creates an inreasingly surreal soundscape. While some of his records can be grouped together stylistically, this one stands out. It’d be a nice to hear another like it. Footnote: Unspeakable won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album; occasionally, the Grammies get it right.

I’ve left out many other great Frisell disks (This Land, Lookout for Hope) because I’ve got to stop somewhere and this post is already longer than most (Thanks, if you’re still reading). For the same reason, I haven’t touched on his work supporting other musicians (Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, Vic Chesnutt, Loudon Wainwright III, tribute master Hal Willner’s projects, etc.).

I could go on all day about the Clark Kent of the electric guitar. Santoro came up with that nickname for him in 1989, and in the two decades since, Frisell has continued to create some of the most mind-bending music to be heard, even for fans that think they know what’s coming next. After all this time, he’s earned the right to step out of the phone booth, take off his glasses (figuratively speaking) and put on that Superman cape.