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Bill Frisell - The Intercontinentals

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Artist: Bill Frisell

Album: The Intercontinentals

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Jun. 23, 2003

Polyglot Blueprint

In his epic The Maximus Poems, American poet Charles Olson often used the multi-cultural and historic port town of Gloucester, Massachusetts to explore in verse the ancient Greek idea of polis: a concept of city and citizenship that goes beyond geography and architecture and infra-structure and politics, toward the ideal of each citizen’s voice being heard and valued and acted upon. Indeed, one of the aims of Olson’s epic was to create a “glowing city,” made of sound.

Guitarist/composer Bill Frisell may or may not be aware of Olson’s projective verse, but there are ways in which his recent music parallels some of the same sense of polis.

Starting with Good Dog Happy Man and coming into focus on Blues Dream, Frisell has staked out a territory of rich and spacious small-group composition and improvisation that is grounded in American roots music: blues, Appalachian music, soul, jazz. With a commitment to the weave of musical voices in conversation, Frisell has increasingly eschewed the idea of solo and back-up; the result has been music with a Gil Evans-like textural shimmer, a call and response colloquy between the musicians that is at times structurally reminiscent of a cooler, more relaxed version of early New Orleans jazz or a de-thorned, lyrical, and modal take on Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics.

With The Intercontinentals, Frisell goes global with the concept, putting together a sort of international super group. Steel guitarist Greg Leisz is once again on hand, along with a plethora of other stringed voices from different cultural traditions: Jenny Scheinman’s sublime and melodic violin, Christos Govetas’s skittering and throbbing oud, Vinicius Cantuaria’s samba and bossa guitar and percussion pulse. Sidiki Camara propels the ensemble with West African percussion grooves that are at once stately and insistent. The end result is an unfolding of many styles and genres in balance and consort; there is room for every voice: sometimes it seems almost sleight-of-hand that any music could have so much going on and yet be so spacious. Both Cantuaria and Camara add occasional singing that lucidly reveals their respective musical roots, and this serves to underscore the polyglot vibe.

There is one particular moment that sums up nicely the whole experience of The Intercontinentals: at the start of “Procissao”, a pulse of West African percussion lays the groundwork for a fat chunk of rolling-and-tumbling Mississippi Delta blues guitar, and then, just at the moment one might expect to hear a melismatic Sahelian African voice soaring above that steady groove, the whole thing morphs into Gilberto Gil’s classic Bahian song. It’s smooth and seamless, organic and flowing; an amazing and exhilarating transition that sings with the commonality of all those disparate traditions.

With this band of intercontinental musicians, and with the help of producer Lee Townsend and engineer Tucker Martine, it seems that Bill Frisell has found a diverse and democratic blueprint for the construction of a glowing city of sound.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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