Recording of April 1998: Gone, Just Like A Train

BILL FRISELL: Gone, Just Like A Train
Bill Frisell, electric & acoustic guitars; Viktor Krauss, bass; Jim Keltner, drums, percussion
Nonesuch 79479-2 (CD). 1998. Lee Townsend, prod.; Judy Clapp, eng. AAD. TT: 69:58
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Bill Frisell is a soulful jazz minimalist with a sophisticated sense of harmony, a daring rhythmic approach, and an instantly recognizable, personal sound—as if Carl Perkins and Duane Eddy took on Otis Rush and Bill Evans in a bridge tournament. Every note is carefully sculpted, imbued with a bluesy, lightly Echoplexed halo, and elongated like taffy in a manner suggestive of the enigmatic Peter Green. Upon occasion, Bill will transmogrify into an 800-lb gorilla with a touch of distortion, but more often than not this affable galoot is content to make bricks with straw—a remarkable melodist who can transmute single notes into sapphire tears.

For those more impressed with the meat than the motion, Frisell's floor routine may seem simplistic. Besides, why would someone who can play bebop be so fascinated with bells that jingle-jangle-jingle? So while I doubt that jazzman Bill Frisell is really dead, long live Cowboy Bill.

While Frisell's fellow improvisers have immersed themselves in the sophisticated harmonic cycles of The Real Book, our post-modernist Slowhand has seemingly retreated to Mel Bay's Guitar Method, Level One. One can visualize Mel himself in his inner sanctum, auditioning Bill's brilliant new trio recording Gone, Just Like A Train and hoisting tankard after tankard of pale ale in praise of this most unlikely of guitar heroes, tears rolling down his cheeks as he cries between hiccups, "G Major, D Major, E Minor—God bless you, Bill!"

In the tradition of Nashville, last year's acclaimed string-band recording (Nonesuch 79415), Frisell's remarkable new trio on Gone, Just Like A Train is a cultural whistlestop tour of folk sources that conveys this land's epic rhythmic dynamism, regional diversity, and backwaters of mystery and quiet wonder. It's as if the Modern Jazz Quartet had interpolated Cream. Together with his remarkable collaborators, bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jim Keltner, Frisell successfully plumbs a variety of simple expressive forms within the raging seas of intellectual complexity that have traditionally defined the domain of the modern jazzman.

For Stereophile readers, Gone, Just Like A Train is a guaranteed five-star dog-yummy for your sound system. Frisell, producer Lee Townsend, and engineer Judy Clapp have done a remarkable job. Few things are more revealing than a trio recording, and each instrument here is rendered with remarkable depth, clarity, and detail. The soundstage is immense and airy, and the mix is notable for the manner in which each tune achieves subtle changes in placement, presence, and perspective while maintaining a consistent sonic viewpoint.

Every tune on Gone, Just Like A Train is a lyric jewel. For the free formalists among you, there's the extended blowing on "Lookout for Hope," with its intimations of six against four, as Krauss holds down the groove with heroic restraint and a resounding bottom, and Keltner and Frisell engage in bluesy, airborne dialog—as loose and swinging an interpretation of the backbeat as I've ever heard.

Then there's the epic quietude and resonant splendor of "Lonesome," as Frisell evokes a rich tapestry of southwestern imagery with his ringing two- and three-note chords and Johnny Smith-like touch. On "Godson Song" he plumbs the depths of silence with steel-guitar-like swells as Keltner essays broken abstractions of the pulse, while "Pleased to Meet You" and "Girl Asks Boy" are all wide-eyed folkish innocence. And "Sherlock Jr." and the title tune range freely between country and astral before settling just south of the border.

People, get ready—if you love electric guitar, bass, drums, and the real roots of blues, country, rockabilly, and modern jazz, this train is bound for glory.—Chip Stern