In recent years, I have read some reviews that chastised Bill Frisell for making music that is a little too accessible. Any fears that we might have that he will engage in that kind of nonsense on this CD are put gloriously to rest during the first two minutes of play.
The opening is two minutes of electronic distortion, skittering extended techniques on string instruments and oddball humor. Delightful. Out of that emerges a strumming guitar followed by Ivesian melodies by the string section.
I recently remarked in a review of a Dresser-Uitti CD that I felt that creative improvised music was experiencing a string instrument renaissance. Part of that renaissance is a renewal of interest in the string trio/quartet as a medium for improvised music. Early efforts in that renaissance were made by Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake (of course- that particular quartet of individuals started the music off in so many directions). In the last decade, Tristan Honsinger and Ig Henneman have made fascinating contributions to the quartet form while the Arcado String Trio and the Amsterdam String Trio have explored a nearby sonic world.
The delight of this particular CD is the conceit of using Frisell's guitar and electronics in lieu of one of the traditional violins. The other players are Jenny Scheinman on the violin, Eyvind Kang on the viola and Hank Roberts on the cello. The eight pieces are inspired by eight paintings in a series by Gerhard Richter. The CD's booklet has very nice reproductions of the paintings and interviews with both Frisell and producer David Breskin who oversaw the whole project. The interviews tell you much about the creative process that was involved.
I find this to be mostly a very successful piece of music. I was trying to be precise earlier when I mentioned Ives. The last few years of Frisell's career has been defined by an immersion in and a reimagining of Americana. With this CD, he gives American folk sensibilities as much of a tweak as Ives did in many of his pieces. The results are both familiar and oddly disturbing. Part of the reason for the disturbing quality is the way the geography of the sound is spaced. Frisell is in the center and the other three are heard through and around him. Frisell uses plenty of space of course so he does not dominate the sound but the result is that his playing frequently emerges seamlessly out of the playing of one of the others.
My only beef with the music is the electronics. One of the problems I have with electronics in music is that occasionally they almost always remind me of cheap sci-fi movie special effects. I know this is nothing more than my weird quirk but there it is. This occurs for me on the sixth piece. From Ives to Star Trek in a single musical phrase. I am just getting too old for that sort of juxtaposition.
But this is a minor and personal criticism. I enjoy this CD everytime I have put it on. I hear something new every time. And every time I feel a delight in the fact that my beloved string quartet format is being renewed. My thanks to Hank, Jenny, Eyvind and Bill.