f jazz has typically remained an expressly urban form, the sophisticated, long-estranged city cousin to backwoods blues hollerin’ and all get down, Bill Frisell has done as much as any jazzer over the last twenty years to sustain and redouble ties with country, bluegrass, folk, even that bastard rock and roll, all in the name of uh-may-ree-konn-uh. But as the grayscale hustle and bustle cartoonery bedecking the liner and comfy Nonesuch slipcase of Unspeakable implicates, his latest opus is a natted up citybound affair, no mistaking. Bill’s tipped his Stetson to longtime producer-sidekick Lee Townsend (for the time being at least), traded it in for a Fedora, and stepped into a tinted limo with eclecticist project-man Hal Willner, who’s also credited as playing turntables and/or samples on most of these cuts.
The new reference point on the block (I never said this wasn’t just a further exploration of the American idiom) would be funk/soul, brother—the title of the opening cut marks our milieu as 1968, but I’d push it a few years later and identify the historosonic touchstone as the height of the Blaxploitation era. There’s plenty of cinematic slather as far as that goes; if there’s anything this record has going for it, it’s atmosphere: thick, dusky, several shades of frightening. Frisell’s timbral tendencies are as tenacious as ever, and this time out he brings the noise with an ensemble eleven strong on the fullest of these cuts, replete with squawking horns and a string section that gives the record much of its flavor. As far as the nearly omnipresent turntables, well, the booklet dutifully catalogs more sample fodder than your typical bling-hop album, (from Guy Warren of Ghana to “Kai Rautenberg Electronic Sounds” to Otto Seiben’s “Pagan Flute B,” precisely none of which I can identify), but durned if I could discern much of anything under all the ruckus.
Get it that this is a sprawling, psychaleptic dense-party record not concerned one fig with the economy and sparseness that plenty consider to be central tenets of funkology. This is soul the way Bitches Brew was rock, which is to say, not really at all, but it sure got some mean grooves. Electric Miles—maybe On the Corner here—is almost too obvious a point of sonic similarity to mention (when isn’t it these days, you know?) The chaos here is more reined in; more sublimated into texture and composition, but there is still plenty of glorious ugliness to go around. On the other hand, a few choice cuts take a different interpretation of the “atmospheric” keyword, leave out the groove entirely, and proffer brooding introspection; which isn’t to say they lack the power to unsettle. Among these, possibly my favorite selection here—the brief, almost symphonic “Hymn for Ginsberg,” just Friz ‘n’ the strings—makes me eager to check out this group’s recent record of unorthodox string quartet accompaniments to Gerhard Richter paintings.
You may notice I haven’t said much about Bill Frisell’s guitar playing on this record. Although it’s generally in evidence, it often feels like much less of a focal point than one might expect. Sometimes there’s so much else going that the listener gets distracted; elsewhere he’s just being a good little funk guitarist and keeping it min. Still, there are ample chances for him to properly hold forth, resurrecting the swagger of his righteous Gone, Just Like a Train, ripping the fuzztone on the extended “Alias,” getting all (Marc) Ribot-angular on a groover like “White Fang,” and just totally losing it on the cacophonous final blowout of “Old Sugar Bear.”
If anything, he comes off as less of a lead player on this disc because, more often than not, there aren’t real leads to play. A lot of these “tunes” don’t have melodies so much as loosely motivic riffs. The album’s closest brush with pop, “Who Was That Girl?” could almost be the backing track to a lost Motown single, just waiting for a Smokey-penned vocal line to complete the equation. Elsewhere, the cuts don’t even bother to have chord structures, much less hummable phrases. This more than anything can make Unspeakable a fairly disorienting, and indeed disengaging, listen at first, with so much textural clutter and so little to hold on to. It’s a hurdle, I won’t deny it, but as a few compulsive listens reveal, this is an album about something else. Oh, the urbanity, remember? After years of laid-back, country-inflected roots-jazz records, Frisell takes a New York minute (actually rather more: 1.2 hours says iTunes) to present a conspicuous and confounding expression of the madness, multiplicity, and paradoxical beauty of big city life.
Reviewed by: K. Ross Hoffman
Reviewed on: 2005-03-28