Another year, another Bill Frisell album. The jazz legend’s indefatigable work ethic remains undimmed as he nears his 70th birthday, and his latest solo record, Valentine finds him once again in the folk and Americana orientation of his last LP, Harmony. Given Frisell’s wide-ranging interests, getting two back-to-back albums in the same mode is relatively rare, though his new trio, including bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, finds the guitarist changing up previously recorded originals and covers.

The trio open with a rendition of Malian musician Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame,” a song that Frisell first covered on 2003’s The Intercontinentals. The version here is elemental, with Frisell tuning up an electric guitar to the high, brittle whine of desert blues musicians and playing light filigrees as Royston lays down a slow, loping beat and Morgan adds simple chords in the spaces between Frisell’s notes. They transition smoothly into “Hour Glass,” which trades the bright blues of the opener for something nearer to drone, notes sustained into dissonant whines while Royston rolls back on his percussion to favor brassy splashes. It sounds completely different from “Baba Drame,” but the transition works logically as the spare blues slows down into abstract tone music.

Similarly, the next two tracks, “Valentine” and “Levees,” differ significantly from each other while forming a kind of loose suite for the album’s first third. The title track is pure lounge jazz, shoving Royston front and center for skittering snares, rolling toms and sharp cymbal work while Frisell plays the clipped, zigzagging chords common to jazz guitar, bending nearly every note until each chord warbles up and down a half step. “Levees,” meanwhile, returns to the blues of the opener, adding an extra layer of grit and doom to offset the sunnier “Baba Drame,” with a heavier bassline and rampant cymbal brushing.

Elsewhere, the trio play placid, chipper versions of pop and folk songbook classics. Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” gets an angular but wistful rendition, Frisell’s guitar dancing around the vocal melody as Morgan lets each chord ring out until the forceful plucking fades into gentler phrasing and Royston softly taps over his hi-hat. “We Shall Overcome” closes the record in tacit protest, Frisell and Morgan settling into a stark jazz pas-de-deux redolent of Angelo Badalementi’s work on “Twin Peaks.” Like any good jazzbos taking on standards, the musicians use well-worn roots to present something unpredictable and new, prodding the compositions and letting their own emotional phrasing emphasize certain attributes.

At times, the languid structure of the songs can drag on a bit too long. “Keep Your Eyes Open” and “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” slow things down in the middle of the album with a combined 13-minute running time that shows how easily this music can slide from placid to listless. Yet even these overlong exercises show how elegantly the trio can segue these tracks into variations that belie their calm surface. On “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” for example, the looping chords suddenly dump out into brief, sprinting passages from both Frisell and Royston that force Morgan into string-bending fills to keep up.

Valentine’s unassuming exterior hides numerous pleasures, and to hear Frisell’s lightly darting guitar dancing over the mix of Americana and jazz is a delightful glimpse at a proven master so comfortable in his virtuosity that he feels no need to show it off in dazzling technical displays. Listen to the way the sunbaked “Wagon Wheels” grows from a sluggish bit of western guitar into a slowly spiraling sense of elation backed by a beat that congeals over the first two-thirds until it becomes a hoedown slow jam. It takes supreme confidence to play music this way, and Frisell’s late-period work brims with the excitement of hearing a man with nothing left to prove.

A breezy combination of blues, folk and jazz, Frisell’s latest is the sound of a maestro gently flexing his immense skills.
70 %
Casual mastery
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