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Published: 2005/09/08
by Michael Slaboch

East/West – Bill Frisell

Nonesuch Records

Bill Frisell’s unorthodox harmonic perception and ability to passionately improvise at great lengths over his complex compositions — which defy a label and seem to cross all genres of music — have made him one of the most exciting American guitarists to listen to over the past 20 years. East/West his first live album since 1991’s LIVE focuses on two of the trios he’s been fronting for a while now, with both discs being recorded about six months apart in the autumn of 2004 at Manhattan’s historic Village Vanguard and Yoshi’s in Oakland, respectively.

The ubiquitous East Village drummer Kenny Wollesen — who’s played with everybody from to John Zorn to Norah Jones — caresses the percussion instruments on both discs behind Victor Krauss on the upright out West and Tony Scherr doing double duty on the bass and the acoustic guitar downstairs on Seventh Avenue.

Surprisingly, the East disc lacks the distinctive NYC edge and feels a little more structured compared to the West set, which doesn’t have a single song under eight minutes! That is not to say that East doesn’t have its moments, in particular Wollesen’s outstanding marimba work or perhaps muted or textured vibes — behind the end of Ron Carter is one of the highlights of the album that deserves another listen. All of the tracks are well played, but they don’t seem to have as much energy as the Yoshi’s set and that may be due to the fact that most of the songs are slower paced standards or originals that they have chose to juxtapose against the dynamic West performances.

The opener is a subtle and refreshing take on the Motown/Marvin Gaye hit, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine". There’s something very comforting about the simple and familiar four note bass line that the trio always ends up on after Frisell creatively noodles around the melody and I still can’t seem to lose my association of the song to those damn California Raisins (perhaps among the first Top 40 Hits associated with a product in the minds of Americans).

The haunting "Blues For Los Angeles" has some serious momentum and finds Frisell reaching into darker territory with his colorful wash of harmonic overtones that meander around Wollesen’s relentless attack on the kit. "Pipe Down" catches a funky groove early on with the rhythm section finishing each other's lines while Frisell complements the melody with some beautiful waves of delayed notes before he goes back to vamp on the initial theme. Sonically the song feels great as he turns on the Rat distortion pedal the closest sound he’ll get to the intense sonic energy he emitted in Zorn’s hardcore metal band Naked City back in the early 90’s — and throws in some strangely suited rockabilly licks over the wonderful Elvin Jones-esque cymbal work by Wollesen towards the end of the song.

"A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" is a poetic and imaginative take on Dylan’s rather dark, but musically uplifting song. The intro and first verse is just Frisell quietly doing what he does best, and that’s slowly working notes in his own unique way and creatively bringing out the emotion of Dylan’s poetic lines. The rhythm section slowly comes in and the three of them progressively get louder and more energetic coming closer to capturing the sound of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue version as opposed to the original folk version by the time they work their way through a number of verses. I couldn’t help but think about the line, “And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it” Dylan’s voice wandering around in the back of my mind, and wondering if it could be Frisell’s mantra, which seems to sum up his humble attitude in regards to his tremendous imagination and intelligent musical ability that he continues to show us with each new album.

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