Bill Frisell “Orchestras” (2024)

Orchestras is a welcome, though not entirely satisfying, addition to guitarist Bill Frisell’s eye-popping and wonderfully wide-ranging discography. This double-disc set pairs the guitarist and composer with two distinctly different “orchestras,” both mostly arranged by veteran composer and orchestrator Michael Gibbs.

The first “orchestral” disc released under Frisell’s own name, Orchestras would seem to be a sequel of sorts to the terrific 2015 disc Michael Gibbs & The NDR Big Band Play a Bill Frisell Set List (Cuneiform – recorded live in 2013). But while the earlier disc featured the guitarist as a special-guest soloist with the superb German NDR Big Band, Orchestras reunites the guitarist/composer and co-conspirator arranger/composer with the 60-piece Brussels Philharmonic (on disc one) and the much smaller Umbria Jazz Orchestra (on disc two).

Like Miles and Gil, Frisell and Gibbs seem particularly well-suited to one another. Each has distinctly unique ideas about how to interact with and transcend the needless boundaries of jazz. Of course, Frisell (b. 1951) and Gibbs (b. 1937) are both Berklee grads, though Gibbs was a professor there when Frisell was a student.

The two were first recorded together as part of singer Marianne Faithful’s Strange Weather (1987), an album produced by the legendary Hal Wilner (1956-2020) – who did much work with both on many occasions. The two next worked together on the composer/arranger’s 1988 disc Big Music, an album which did not appear in the U.S. until a 1996 reissue on the great Act label. Frisell and Gibbs crossed paths again on guitarist John Scofield’s superb Grace Under Pressure (1992) – all well before the above-noted Cuneiform disc.

Bill Frisell, Michael Gibbs

Apparently, this project came about after Gibbs worked on a multi-media project in 2019 with Charles Lloyd, Red Waters, Black Skies, Gibbs planned on a collaboration with Frisell (who was likely part of the Lloyd project) in Brussels. The pandemic, of course, got in the way. Whatever the original plan was, Gibbs worked on and re-worked his scores and ideas until performances could finally be scheduled in late 2021 and early 2022. Orchestras is the result.

Accompanied throughout by trio mates Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, Frisell and Gibbs ruminate on originals and covers from the guitarist’s repertoire. The first disc here pairs the trio with an orchestra – lush with multiple strings, horns and woodwinds – while the second disc (recorded nine months earlier) matches the three with ten horns and a cellist.

Thomas Morgan, Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston

This Bill Frisell set list starts with Gibbs’ “Nocturne Vulgaire,” a little-known song which first appeared on a 1974 Gary Burton album. Frisell gets in some bluesy licks over great swaths of moody strings. This segues in to Billy Strayhorn’s more familiar “Lush Life,” first recorded by Frisell on a 1989 Tony Scott album and, later, on the duo disc Epistrophy (2019). Frisell also waxed a vocal version of “Lush Life” on the 2019 album Harmony.

While Frisell has often recorded with bass legend Ron Carter – even, in true Miles Davis fashion, naming a song after him – “Doom” has not previously factored on a Frisell program. The song originated on the bassist/composer’s 1970 album Uptown Conversation, an album that yielded several much better-known Carter originals like “R.J.” and Little Waltz.” The Miles-ian (well, to be fair, Wayne Shorter-ish) “Doom” gets a Gil Evans-esque treatment from Gibbs and a surprisingly attractive Kenny Burrell-like reading from Frisell.

We’re back to Frisell country again with “Rag.” The song dates back to Frisell’s 1990 disc Is That You? (and revived on 1994’s This Land and 1995’s Live). Frisell starts off fine in such familiar territory, but the arrangement digs into the almost cartoon-like nature of the melody by mixing a bit of Mingus with Sgt. Pepper…for some reason. It is an unusual choice in this context and, perhaps, the one outright dud of the program.

Frisell’s staple “Throughout” (also on the Cuneiform disc) dates back to the guitarist’s solo debut In Line [1983] and is frequently revisited by the guitarist (Live, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, Hemispheres [with Jim Hall] – as well as many live sets available online). Here, Gibbs serves up an arrangement that suggests Gil Evans taking up Ravel’s “Bolero,” a choice that makes perfect sense for Frisell’s unique composition and performance.

“Electricity” first appeared on the superb 2020 trio set Valentine. This marvelous Frisell original sounds like a twisted jig from a medieval movie soundtrack. At spots, Frisell reminds this listener of fellow guitarist Gabor Szabo on his CTI recording of “Mizrab.” Here, Gibbs amps up the baroque flavor of the song by bending chords and beautifully coalescing the orchestra’s lights and darks into a commanding statement worthy of the great film composer John Williams.

Michael Gibbs’ “Sweet Rain” was first recorded by Stan Getz (at the time with Gary Burton, who would also record the song under his own name in 1967) for the 1964 soundtrack to Get Yourself a College Girl. Frisell previously recorded the song with trumpeter Cuong Vu’s 4-tet on the 2017 album Ballet – The Music of Michael Gibbs. Gibbs launches the dreamy melody here with lush string arpeggios that propel Frisell in to some of his loveliest playing on the set.

“Richter 858, No. 7” comes from the fascinating 2005 Frisell album Richter 858, a musical exploration of the work of the great German artist Gerhard Richter. Among the original project’s eight pieces, “Richter 858-7” is one of the most striking and memorable. The original – stunningly arranged by Frisell himself – was scored for the guitarist and a string quartet and came off as something of a heavy-metal hoedown. For this rendition, “No. 7” gets a warmer, funkier Frisell and the welcome addition of subtle timpani motifs and a melange of strings and horns that recall the best of Oliver Nelson’s work in this domain.

The second Orchestras disc differs considerably from the first, but to surprisingly little audible effect. But while it starts with one heck of a bang, it kind of fizzles out pretty much from there.

This disc kicks off with “Lookout for Hope,” the title track to a 1988 album that boasted several terrific Frisell originals – notably “Little Brother Bobby,” which is sorely missed here. The guitarist has since revisited “Hope” on Gone, Just Like a Train (1998), Four (2022) and the online download Further East/Further West (2005). Here, Gibbs lifts the song mightily with a mysterious drama that beautifully suggests Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango,” which both Gibbs and Frisell covered beautifully on the 2013 Cuneiform set (Gibbs had recorded the song on his own the year before for a Gil Evans tribute disc).

Meanwhile, “Levees” is Frisell at his pictorial best, suggesting so much with so few particularly well-chosen notes. Originally written for the 2014 soundtrack to The Great Flood, “Levees” first appeared on Valentine, which also featured Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston. Gibbs deploys the horns to positive effect, strengthening Frisell’s surprisingly moving motif.

Frisell’s “Strange Meeting” originally appeared on the guitarist’s second solo album Rambler (1985) but found favor as the title track to a 1987 disc by the super-group Power Tools, with Frisell and Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson – my very first encounter with Frisell’s genius. The guitarist also covered the memorable piece on This Land (1994), Live (1995) and Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (2001). “Strange Meeting” this is some of Frisell’s most interesting playing on the record.

“Doom” and “Electricity” are repeated here to little avail, with the exception of the forwarding of cello and Morgan’s bass on the former and a welcome lack of jangled drama on the latter.

“Monica Jane” (also on the earlier Cuneiform disc) was written for the guitarist’s wife and has long been a staple of Frisell’s repertoire, with recordings appearing first on Paul Bley’s Fragments (1986) and later on Frisell’s own This Land, Hemispheres and the 2018 Music Is. Frisell has also recorded “Monica Jane” with saxophonists David Sanborn (who, sadly, passed away while writing this) and Gregory Tardy.

Remarkably, this iteration of “Monica Jane” is reminiscent in sound and substance to the earlier disc’s take on “Beautiful Dreamer” – which, unfortunately, tends too much to reinforce the also-ran nature of Orchestras‘ second disc.

Frisell rounds out the program with his own compelling arrangement of the anthemic “We Shall Overcome,” which he previously covered on the 2020 album Valentine.

A decade ago, Michael Gibbs & The NDR Big Band Play a Bill Frisell Set List was something of a revelation. Hearing Frisell’s music and that exquisitely singular sound practically dominate a big band was not only new but riveting. While Orchestras finally gives the guitarist his very own “with strings” record – that sounds nothing like what such an appellation implies – it’s not always the stirring program such a bold move by two such capable leads promises.

I am hoping for a sequel, even so.

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