Jazz Albums Round-Up: Bill Frisell

Phil Johnson
Friday 11 April 2003 00:00
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If you had to pick one musician from the past 20 years who has really made a difference to the way we perceive sound, the guitarist Bill Frisell would surely come close to the top of the list. His unmistakeable electric guitar technique, in which ambient colour-wash effects are used to create dreamy soundscapes, often set to the contrastingly edgy, off-kilter, rhythms associated with the New York jazz avant-garde, would alone be sufficient to ensure a place in the history books. But then, with 1997's Nashville album, Frisell all but abandoned this hard-won style in favour of bucolic, Bluegrass-influenced, acoustic music.

Now, after running with the country ball for five years or so (at least as far as recordings go; his live work still favours a number of different permutations), Bill Frisell makes his recording debut with the group he first formed in 2001, and brought to London's Barbican for An Evening with Bill Frisell. The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch), features the brilliant Brazilian guitarist and singer-songwriter Vinicius Cantuaria, the Greek-Macedonian composer Christos Govetas on oud and bouzouki, Sidiki Camara from Mali on percussion and vocals, together with additional musicians Jenny Scheinman on guitars and violin, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel and slide guitars.

As you would expect from such a line-up, the music draws on many cultural traditions, but Frisell – who writes 10 of the 14 songs – brings his own, elegiac, signature-style to ensure that there is no mistaking whose project it is. At times, as on Frisell's composition "Listen", the music is as beautiful as anything I've heard for a long time.

Just as the vestigial fins on a knackered old Ford Anglia now make it look retro-cute, so Incognito's soulful Brit-funk grooves have emerged from their chrysalis of naffness to sound almost fashionable again. On Who Needs Love (Dome), the grooves have changed hardly at all. Now, 23 years and nine albums on from the group's first recordings, Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick is still playing great, chopping, rhythm guitar, still writing sexy string arrangements, and still turning a few well-chosen soul-jazz gambits into a high-gloss signature style.

There's still not many fully realised songs either, but as slinky dressing-up-to-go-out music,Who Needs Love will more than do the job. The jazz-funk revival starts – and probably ends – here.

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