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Published: 2013/06/26
by Brian Robbins

Bill Frisell
Big Sur

Okeh Records

The idea came from the folks responsible for the Monterey Jazz Festival: embed a musician/composer in a setting where he was free to just be – responsible for nothing except capturing his own mental lightning bugs in a mason jar and turning them into music.

The setting was Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, CA – 860 acres of bold, raw beauty. No internet; no phone; no TV. Rugged terrain with its chin stuck out defiantly at the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean. Kerouac once came to Big Sur to dry out and nearly O.D.’d on the magnificence of the place – in its way, it was too much.

The subject/guinea pig of sorts turned out to be guitarist Bill Frisell, who was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival to immerse himself in the splendor of Big Sur and see what came of ten days’ worth of free-range muse. Here was a man who had collaborated with the likes of Elvin Jones, Ginger Baker, and Elvis Costello – mountain lions, however, were a different story. Armed with a guitar and some blank notebooks, Frisell went to Glen Deven Ranch in April 2012.

The result is Big Sur, Frisell’s newly-released masterpiece. Here we have music inspired by that 10-day stretch of majestic solitude and solidified by a return visit in September of last year with his bandmates, who Frisell dubbed the “Big Sur Quartet.” Once exposed to the Glen Deven experience for themselves, the quartet was ready to take on Frisell’s compositions and sonic sketches. Frisell – as is his nature – presented violinist Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind Kang (viola), Hank Roberts (cello), and drummer Rudy Royston with basic song structures and concepts, encouraging them to make their own musical decisions along the way and play what Big Sur felt like to them.

Simply put, it works. Big time.

Songs such as “Going To California” and the title track are obvious bits of soundtrack: the former woven with a single thread of the nervousness that Frisell had to have felt along the way; “Big Sur” itself creeping in on the back of a slowly descending guitar line that the strings fold into, interpreting and embellishing with their own gut feelings. “Cry Alone” feels almost too personal to be shared; “Highway 1” (propelled by Roberts’ loping cello and Royston’s cool drum swagger) is full of big, sweeping bends and long glides with the ocean at one elbow; “A Beautiful View” begins with a hesitant-sounding riff that alternates with passages of deep-breath wonderment.

There are unexpected moments: dig the slow blues of “Shacked Up” (you’ve never heard a violin, viola, and cello get this raunchy) and the slow waltz of “Sing Together Like A Family”, flavored with just a hint of an Appalachian fiddle tune. And though the setting was a natural for it, “The Big One”’s soaring surf is a big ol’ sunshiny, goofy treat.

Big Sur is an opportunity to experience both the results of Frisell’s muse allowed to roam in an uncluttered environment and the interpretation of his musical musings by a small team of sympathetic – and very talented – formation flyers. You can almost hear Frisell’s grins as his longtime collaborator/producer Lee Thomas lets the music shape itself on the fly.

It’s an adventure full of big pictures and sounds. Frisell and his quartet did the tough stuff; enjoy the results. Mountain lion-free.


Brian Robbins pushes in the clutch pedal on the downhill grades over at

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