Just when you think you’ve got guitarist-composer Bill Frisell all figured out, confident in your expectations, this American original shakes things up with a heretofore unexpected glimpse into those layers of consciousness which inform his rootsy, inclusive, oh so personal style of musical outreach.
Because while Bill Frisell is capable of routinely navigating the most harrowing ascents into the outer reaches of the improvisational Ionosphere without once ever flinching, there emerge at regular intervals suggestions of something more childlike and elemental; a sensibility which revels in expressions of earnest, unadorned directness – the aesthetic poetry of an impressionistic painter who is unafraid to distill things down to their most folkish, heartfelt essence.
“There’s something about being the age I’m at now,” reflects this iconic guitar hero. “I turned 63 this past spring, and after playing for more than 50 years, it just feels right to once again play some of the music which shaped my consciousness during my formative years, even to play some of it for the first time…and maybe get it right. Guitar in the Space Age! isn’t really an exercise in nostalgia, but about a re-commitment to keep learning, to firm up the foundation-and to showcase one of the best bands I’ve ever had.”
As a baby boomer who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, there is an undeniably autobiographical bent to the tenor and tone of the repertoire which Frisell explores on Guitar in the Space Age! along with long-time collaborators Greg Leisz [pedal steel & electric guitar], Tony Scherr [acoustic bass and electric bass guitar] and Kenny Wollesen [drums and vibraphone]. Collectively they imbue this recording with all of the precision, elegance and swing of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the “we always solo/we never solo” ebb and flow of Weather Report – let alone the little red Corvette twang-o-rama of the Ventures, the Byrds, Blind Faith, the Allman Brothers and a thousand other twin guitar bands).
Because as a triumphant post-war America entered unto a giddy period of prosperity and growth, suggesting the dynamic vitality of its veterans and the limitless potential of their children; an era that was bookmarked by James Dean and Elvis Presley on one hand-embodying the ascent of youth culture and rock and roll-and the moon landing on the other; in the wake of the atomic bomb, the civil rights struggle, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Dr. King, and the twin body blows of Vietnam and Watergate, it also marked an end to our collective innocence.
“It was the space age and there was all of this optimism,” Bill recalls. “Growing up as a kid in the early ’60s, it seemed as if anything was possible-the future was going to be so great. But at the same time there was a serious sense of fear: the Cold War, duck and cover, the civil rights struggle-Vietnam was on the way. So while there was something really liberating and empowering about coming of age during that time, there was also a lot of darkness – it just had to leave a mark on you.”
And in retrospect, nothing was quite as liberating and empowering as the music of that era, powered as it was by the emerging dominance of the electric guitar in popular culture, particularly one influential model as perfected by a visionary veteran of the old radio industry, Leo Fender. Back in 1950, this country and western Henry Ford translated his love for lap steel guitars in general, and Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys in particular, into the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar, and what an enduring hot rod jalopy the Fender Telecaster has been. (The very instrument Frisell plays throughout Guitar in the Space Age!, while Leisz plays a Fender Jazzmaster, while doubling hypnotically on slide and the pedal steel guitar.)
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“We were both learning surf tunes,” Greg recalls. “But in the early ’60s, Bill grew up in Denver. Whereas my father’s work in the radio and aerospace industry eventually landed us in Fullerton, California, not far from Leo Fender’s old radio shop and the factory. Everyone knew about Fender Guitars. Being in Southern California, I was obviously in the middle of all that surf music activity; ironically enough, after we covered “Baja” by The Astronauts for this album, it occurred to me that here was a band from Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just outside of Denver, which had a surf hit out in my neck of the woods – that’d escaped me at the time.”
Written by Chip Stern | Photos of Bill Frisel by Paul Moore
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