History, Mystery (Nonesuch)

Bill Frisell

Released May 13, 2008

Grammy Nominee for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group 2009

Jazzwise Top 10 Releases of 2008






After back-to-back trio albums, this two-disc set finds Bill Frisell performing and recording again with a large band. 
History, Mystery features an octet of strings, horns, and rhythm section with some of Frisell’s closest collaborators—Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang, (viola), Hank Roberts (cello), Ron Miles (cornet), Greg Tardy (clarinet and tenor saxophone), Tony Scherr (bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums). History, Mysterydebuts many recent Frisell compositions as well as a few of his arrangements of favorite pieces by other songwriters, ranging in style from soul pioneer Sam Cooke to jazzmen Thelonious Monk and Lee Konitz. Producer Lee Townsend and engineer Shawn Pierce recorded the group in various combinations and contexts, live and in the studio.
The original compositions on the album were born from and inspired by collaborations with visual artist and fellow Seattle resident Jim Woodring. One such collaboration, “Mysterio Simpatico,” was premiered at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in June of 2002. The two later presented “Probability Cloud,” which appears in parts on the first disc, at Zankel Hall in New York in January of 2006. In a review of the performance, the New York Times wrote, “Both Mr. Frisell and Mr. Woodring make the familiar unfamiliar. In Mr. Frisell’s compositions, cozy, archetypal Americana—country tunes, blues, waltzes—is slowed down, melted at the edges, eerily reharmonized or disassembled and contemplated part by part.”
Townsend says, “History, Mystery explores a fuller palette of orchestral colors and timbres than for any project Bill has done before. Thematic elements recur throughout the album, furthering its symphonic sensibility.”
In a career that spans more than 30 years and 100-plus recordings, Bill Frisell has been hailed by the Washington Post as “not only one of the most inventive jazz guitarists of his generation, but also one of the most versatile and prolific.” The Philadelphia Inquirer writes, “like Miles Davis and few others, his signature is built from pure sound and inflection; an anti-technique that is instantly identifiable.” Frisell’s recordings over the last decades span a wide range of musical influences, from Buster Keaton film scores (The High Sign / One Week, Go West), to Gary Larson cartoon soundtracks (Quartet), to original compositions for extended ensemble with horns (This Land, Blues Dream) and collaborations with the acclaimed rhythm section of bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jim Keltner (Gone, Just Like a Train and Good Dog, Happy Man). Other releases include an album with Nashville musicians (Nashville), the solo album Ghost Town, an album of his arrangements of songs by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (The Sweetest Punch), a trio album with jazz legends Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, and a collection of American traditional songs and original compositions inspired by them entitled The Willies. Unspeakable, produced by Hal Willner, won a Grammy in 2005. DownBeat has cited his catalog, including more than 20 recordings for Nonesuch, as “the best recorded output of the decade.”

Track Listing:

Disc 1

1. Imagination (Bill Frisell) 1:51

2. Probability Cloud (Bill Frisell) 4:45

3. Probability Cloud, Pt. 2 (Bill Frisell) 1:01

4. Out of Body (Bill Frisell) 2:27

5. Struggle (Bill Frisell) 5:32

6. A Momentary Suspension of Doubt (Bill Frisell) 0:38

7. Onward (Bill Frisell) 1:38

8. Baba Drame (Boubacar Traoré) 6:09

9. What We Need (Bill Frisell) 1:37

10. A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke) 8:49

11. Jackie-Ing (Thelonious Monk) 2:55

12. Show Me (Bill Frisell) 3:16

13. Boo and Scout (Bill Frisell) 2:28

14. Struggle, Pt. 2 (Bill Frisell) 6:25

15. Heal (Bill Frisell) 1:41

16. Another Momentary Suspension of Doubt (Bill Frisell) 0:37

17. Probability Cloud (Reprise) (Bill Frisell) 1:36

Disc 2

1. Monroe (Bill Frisell) 4:18

2. Lazy Robinson (Bill Frisell) 2:18

3. Question #1 (Bill Frisell) 1:14

4. Answer #1 (Bill Frisell) 0:40

5. Faces (Bill Frisell) 1:52

6. Sub-Conscious Lee (Lee Konitz) 5:39

7. Monroe, Pt. 2 (Bill Frisell) 1:52

8. Question (Bill Frisell) 0:56

9. Lazy Robinson, Pt. 2 (Bill Frisell) 3:18

10. What We Need, Pt. 2 (Bill Frisell) 1:16

11. Waltz for Baltimore (Bill Frisell) 8:47

12. Answer #2 (Bill Frisell) 1:50

13. Monroe, Pt. 3 (Bill Frisell) 2:58


Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loops
Ron Miles: cornet
Greg Tardy: tenor saxophone, clarinet
Jenny Scheinman: violin
Eyvind Kang: viola
Hank Roberts: cello
Tony Scherr: bass
Kenny Wollesen: drums

Recorded at Avast 2, Seattle; Lisner Auditorium, Washington, DC; Hopkins Center, Hanover, New Hampshire; and Berklee Performance Center, Boston

Produced by Lee Townsend
Recording and Mixing Engineer: Shawn Pierce
Mastering Engineer: Greg Calbi
Additional mixing and editing: Adam Muñoz
Production assistance:  Adam Blomberg
Assistant Engineers: Cathy Ferrante, Austin Sousa and Cameron Nicklaus
Live Sound: Claudia Engelhart
Design by Barbara deWilde
Cover photographs by Russell Lee


While guitarist Bill Frisell has continued to shape his uniquely skewed confluence of musical styles, it’s been too long since he weighed in heavily on the compositional side. In recent years, the writing has most often served the playing, largely providing a context around which the guitarist and various-sized groups can explore, expand and mine. That’s by no means a bad thing, and has resulted in some fine albums including Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006) and East/West (Nonesuch, 2005). But on more authorial discs like the career-defining This Land(Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994), as undeniably key as the improvisational acumen of his ensemble was, there was a greater sense of the playing serving the writing. 
History, Mystery rebalances Frisell’s interest in composition and improvisation more equitably. A lot has changed since This Land, so Frisell fans looking for the sharper edges and harsher extremes of that disc will find that the double-disc History, Mystery still feels absolutely of a kind with recent releases. Relaxed, laconic and as occasionally quirkily witty as ever, there’s also a darker melancholy pervading some of this music for an expanded ensemble of guitar, bass, drums, cornet, reeds, violin, viola and cello. Largely recorded live, much of History, Mysterystems from Frisell’s ongoing collaboration with Jim Woodring, whose artwork graced the covers of Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch, 1998) and With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch, 2001). 
With a wealth of through-composed material featuring Frisell’s astute arrangements in a near-chamber music context, the guitarist’s effortless mastery of real-time processing is still a strong textural component. Nor has the guitarist deserted rhythm happy music entirely, mining a simple song like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” a stylistic shifter to the first disc’s narrative where Frisell’s arrangement for Greg Tardy’s tenor and Ron Miles’ cornet create an unexpectedly spare yet lush backdrop for bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen’s reductionist pulse. 
Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing” follows, three minutes of elegant swing and further proof that Frisell’s flipped-on-its-side approach is the closest any guitarist has come to truly capturing the spirit of the late, great, quirky piano icon. Despite the form’s predominance, violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts—like the rest of his group, all long-time occasional associates—find ways to blend form and freedom, without the benefit of delineated soloing. 

Frisell’s new original material largely dominates, although he does revisit the deceptively simple “Monroe,” from Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999), this time in three different versions that thematically thread the entire second disc; first as a duet between Frisell’s delayed/looped guitar and viola, second as a guitar solo; and finally as a closing coda for tremelo’d guitar and viola. It’s evidence that there’s often more than meets the eye to Frisell’s writing. Even Frisell’s Americana work—music that has come under no small degree of unfair criticism as diluting of his “jazz” cred—can be grist for greater harmonic sophistication and orchestrated depth. Frisell may have largely simplified his writing in the past decade, but it’s still compelling, evocative and rife with possibilities. 
Still, for the first twenty minutes of the first disc, from the brooding waltz-time of “Imagination” to the faux-Jewish ambience of “Probability Cloud,” ethereal angularity of “Out of Body” and blues-tinged “Struggle” that references the similarly spacious groove of “Ron Carter” from Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001), Frisell deftly combines oblique yet attractive writing with rhythm-centric passages that tread a fine line between detailed structure and collective spontaneity. 
While not as in-your-face impressive as This Land, a high water mark for Frisell the composer, History, Mystery does possess some of his best scored writing since. By combining it with looser groove-centricity and a top-notch octet capable of a myriad of soundscapes, it’s a masterpiece of consolidation that also demonstrates Frisell’s penchant for roots music has done nothing to compromise the idiosyncrasies that have been so definitive of his voice since he emerged almost thirty years ago.

John Kelman (All About Jazz)