Bill Frisell

Released August 24, 2004

Grammy Award Best Contemporary Jazz Album 2005

JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2004




Celebrated guitarist Bill Frisell’s 19th Nonesuch record, Unspeakable, was released in August 2004. The groove and soul–based collaboration with renowned producer Hal Willner takes a freewheeling, idiosyncratic approach to the modern art of music sampling. As a jumping-off point for the record, Frisell and Willner employed obscure songs and sounds culled from vintage vinyl records for their own sonic explorations, borrowing and integrating choice fragments into original compositions. Willner, Saturday Night Live’s music supervisor, scoured NBC’s well-stocked record library for inspiration. The pair sampled the ideas and/or moods from the various tracks Willner had unearthed; in most cases, Frisell elaborated on the original, creating new songs and often going in a totally different direction from the sample.

With Willner manning the turntables, Frisell is accompanied by frequent collaborators Tony Scherr (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums), and Steven Bernstein (trumpet, horn arrangements). Don Alias and Adam Dorn are featured on percussion and synth, respectively. Frisell also wrote string arrangements, which are played by the 858 Strings: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, and cellist Hank Roberts.

“Making this record with Hal was the fulfillment of a 20-plus year dream for me,” said Frisell. Early in their careers, Frisell and Willner collaborated on Willner’s groundbreaking 1981 multi-artist tribute to Nina Rota’s music for Fellini films. Although he had never heard the guitarist, Willner gave Frisell his first solo recording opportunity, based on a recommendation from a mutual friend—the drummer D. Sharpe, for whom a track on Unspeakable is named—on Amarcord Nino Rota. The pair crossed paths often over the next two decades, collaborating on Stay Awake, a record of Disney music, and Weird Nightmare, a tribute to Charles Mingus. Frisell also performed as part of the Willner-produced tribute concerts for Harry Smith and Randy Newman at UCLA. Other Willner-produced records on which Frisell is featured include Marianne Faithful, Allen Ginsberg, David Sanborn, and Gavin Friday projects. The two also recorded music to accompany William Burroughs’s reading of Naked Lunch. More recently, they joined forces on the scores for Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester, as well as Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel with Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, and Bono. During the Hotel sessions, Willner heard Frisell playing dance music and got an idea for a unique joint venture, something the genre-bending Frisell had never recorded before. As Willner says, “We wanted to make a beautiful, fun record that still was a Bill Frisell record. I think we succeeded.”

Track Listing:

1. 1968 (Bill Frisell) 4:37

2. White Fang (Bill Frisell / Hal Willner) 5:41

3. Sundust (Hal Willner) 2:38

4. Del Close (Bill Frisell / Eric Liljestrand / Hal Willner) 5:05

5. Gregory C. (Bill Frisell / Hal Willner) 5:41

6. Stringbean (Bill Frisell / Eric Liljestrand / Hal Willner) 5:58

7. Hymn for Ginsberg (Bill Frisell) 2:26

8. Alias (Bill Frisell / Eric Liljestrand / Hal Willner) 7:56

9. Who Was That Girl? (Steven Bernstein / Bill Frisell / Eric Liljestrand / Hal Willner) 4:53

10. D. Sharpe (Bill Frisell) 4:13

11. Fields of Alfalfa (Otto Sieben / Hal Willner) 3:41

12. Tony (Bill Frisell / Tony Scherr / Kenny Wollesen) 3:37

13. Old Sugar Bear (G.A. Grant / Eric Liljestrand / Hal Willner) 7:12

14. Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye (Bill Frisell / Teddy Lasry / Hal Willner) 8:59


Bill Frisell: guitar (1-9, 11-14)
Hal Willner: turntables (1-6, 8-11, 13, 14)
Tony Scherr: bass (1-4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14), guitar (12)
Kenny Wollensen: drums (1-4, 6, 8, 9, 11-14)
Don Alias: percussion (1, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12)
Steven Bernstein: trumpet (2, 6, 9, 11, 12)
Briggan Krauss: baritone saxophone (2, 6, 9, 11, 12)
Curtis Fowlkes: trombone (2, 6, 9, 11, 12)
Adam Dorn: synth (4)
The 858 Strings (1, 4, 6-12, 14): Jenny Scheinman, violin; Eyvind Kang, viola; Hank Roberts, cello

Produced by Hal Willner
Recorded, mixed, and edited by Eric Liljestrand
Recorded and mixed at The Village, North Hollywood, CA
Assistant Engineers: Matt Marin, Darren Frank and Margit Pfeiffer
Horns recorded by Noah Simon at Jarvis Recording, New York City
Additional recording at Adam’s Place, NY; and Eric’s Place, LA
Additional editing on track 2 by Adam Dorn
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York City


This collaboration between Bill Frisell and Hal Willner, the producer, turntablist and Saturday Night Live music supervisor, yields intriguing but mixed results. That Frisell should choose to put his postmodern country twang through a hip-hop filter isn’t surprising-he’s been a combiner of sounds and idioms from the beginning. But his is not a predictable mind, and Unspeakable is not a shallow hop onto the sampling bandwagon. (Frisell and Willner first collaborated in 1981, on Willner’s Nino Rota tribute.)
There are four sonic elements in play: a core band with Frisell, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen; turntables and samples courtesy of Willner; a guest horn section with Steven Bernstein, Briggan Krauss and Curtis Fowlkes; and the 858 Strings: Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola and Hank Roberts on cello. Don Alias plays percussion on six cuts, and Adam Dorn (aka Mocean Worker) gets credit on synth and additional editing. Willner produced, Eric Liljestrand engineered (and cowrote five tunes).
What emerges is an arty mix of the organic and the synthetic, with Frisell’s slippery clean tones and distorted growls and cries in the middle. It’s nice to hear the live strings, which lend a yearning quality not only on groove tracks like “1968” and “Del Close,” but also on Frisell’s minimalist sketches, “Hymn for Ginsberg” and “D. Sharpe.” The presence, here and there, of Sex Mob’s entire lineup is not incidental; their brash eclecticism couldn’t fit this music more comfortably. On Willner’s laid-back “Sundust” and the cowritten duet “Gregory C.” the Frisell/Willner chemistry is on full display. “Who Was That Girl?” is a marvelous piece of borderline camp, a ’70s fantasia with a vaguely Caribbean twist.
Without fail, Unspeakable’s grooves are infectious. As a compositional whole, though, the album doesn’t always hold one’s attention.

David Adler (JazzTimes)