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The ones that nearly got away: Bill Frisell, Is That You?

[Bill Frisell - Is That You?]

Bill Frisell confused the hell out of me when I first encountered him.

With Naked City, he was thrashing out, whiplashing from country twang to headbanging metal at the flick of the wrist. My cohorts in high school worshiped at the altar of Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I thought Frisell could mop the floor with them.

But he had a subtle touch as well, if his work on the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb was any indication.

Surely with all these bona fides, I could really dig Frisell’s own music, right?

Well, not quite.

The lightning picking and aggressive dissonance were nowhere to be found on Is That You?, Frisell’s second album for Nonesuch released around the time of Naked City and Robin Holcomb. As it turned out, Frisell’s writing occupied a strange intersection of avant-garde classical, jazz improvisation and American folk.

And it was quiet.

A cover of “Chain of Fools” is the closest Frisell would get to being raucous. Instead, he favored sparse, introspective textures. Although the album featured 3/5 of Naked City — Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (who also produced) and drummer Joey Baron — it had none of Naked City’s fire but certainly all of its intensity.

For an 18-year-old listener hyped up by Naked City, I felt let-down by Is That You?, an impression that would unjustly persist for 25 years.

In fact, Is That You? fell into the category of albums I was too young to understand at the time. I’ve been on the hunt for Frisell’s preceding album, Before We Were Born, when I spotted Is That You? Having discovered how wrong I was about other albums in the past, I gave this one another chance.

For a noisy band, Naked City was pretty tuneful, and while I loved its rowdy parts, the hooks allowed me to latch onto the band’s weirder diversions. Is That You? provided few such latches.

“Rag” is a lovely solo piece on acoustic guitar, and another cover of “The Days of Wine and Roses” provides some melodicism, but for the rest of the album, Frisell demands attention as he ties two or more disparate styles of music and sets them in opposing directions.

The title track starts off quietly with some pretty woodwinds, but as it progresses, Baron’s tribal rhythms give way to a hesitant backbeat while Frisell strangles his fretboard. Horvitz throws in his arsenal of weird effects to complicate matters. Many of the album’s tracks proceed in this manner.

I didn’t have the patience or the exposure to Frisell’s influences to understand what he was doing. Two decades and a lot of country music listening later, I get it now. More importantly, I enjoy it.

 

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