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Watch Bill Frisell, Rambling Alone on Guitar, in the First Taste of His New Album, 'Music IS'

Monica Jane Frisell
Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell is no stranger to the solitary urge. Even in an ensemble setting, his graceful, inquisitive guitar playing can feel like the projection of an interior monologue. He’s a warm and generous collaborator but also a paragon of self-containment, complete unto himself.

Music IS, due out March 16 on OKeh/Sony Music Masterworks, gives Frisell an open lane for soliloquy. It’s an elegant solo guitar album full of his trademark looping and layering, with a strong spine of melody throughout. Consisting entirely of his compositions, it’s a deeply personal statement and a marker of artistic evolution. Among the standout tracks is a new take on an old tune, “Rambler.” This exclusive video from the studio documents an alternate version of that same tune.

The very first album under Frisell’s name — In Line, released 35 years ago on ECM — was an atmospheric study performed largely on solo acoustic guitar. Ghost Town, which arrived on Elektra Nonesuch in 2000, charts his wizardly command in the realm of looping and effects. Silent Comedy, a 2013 Tzadik release, is a set of experimental solo improvisations. (Frisell’s 2012 Tiny Desk Concert is also an unaccompanied affair, featuring a medley of John Lennon songs.)

Music IS could be seen as the convergence of all his approaches in the solo format. Frisell recorded the album last August at Tucker Martine’s Flora Recording and Playback studio in Portland, Oregon, with his longtime producer, Lee Townsend. 

But in some other respects, Frisell tried to push into new terrain. Just prior to recording, he held a weeklong residency at The Stone. He has said that his aim was not so much to refine his material, but rather to dislodge himself from anything too familiar or rote, and to introduce a productive tension.

Along with staples like “Rambler,” Frisell brought a handful of new compositions to the sessions. A track called “Think About It” amounts to a psychedelic interlude, shot through with loopy distortion. (It was recorded with Frisell’s amplifier placed inside an upright piano.) “Go Happy Lucky” is an unhurried country blues. “Thankful,” with its softly chiming chords and bittersweet melody, feels destined to join the circle of Frisell’s most indelible ballads.

Frisell’s new album arrives in the midst of much other activity. Bill Frisell: A Portrait, the full-length documentary film by Emma Franz, is now available in commercial formats and on demand. Frisell will appear at The Village Vanguard from March 13 to 25, leading his trio and quartet (and surely playing a little solo besides).

But before then, he’ll be on the road with bassist Thomas Morgan (as on their recent duo album, Small Town). He is also touring with Charles Lloyd & the Marvels and Ron Miles’ Circuit Rider. He’ll join Dave Douglas in “Dizzy Atmosphere,” a Dizzy Gillespie tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center on February 23 and 24.

Music IS will be released on OKeh/Sony Music Masterworks on March 16. For more information on all things Bill Frisell, visit his website.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.