Listening through the two-CDs in Bill Frisell’s History, Mystery is much like going through the dozen panels of cartoon artist R Crumb’s “A Short History of America.” In a dozen wordless panels, Crumb takes us through an untouched pastoral setting which gives give way to a single rail line, then a road and a clapboard house. Soon there are multiplying phone and power wires, rising commerce and sinking signs of nature; bigger and sleeker vehicles and advertising. Frisell’s music, something of a suite, seems to chronicle the same sort of loss and progression, an audible symbol of America’s innocence still palpable even as it’s paved over. The nostalgic black-and-white cover photos add to the feel.
The comic comparison is not so far fetched. The music here grew from a collaboration between Frisell and cartoonist Jim Woodring who’s illustrated a number of Frisell’s previous album covers. Woodring contributes tongue-in-cheek notes for History, Mystery, describing how their friendship was formed during two days of “non-stop hatchet throwing” when they were both employees of the Iron Beaver Lumber Company.
Mostly recorded in live performance with Frisell’s octet, History, Mystery stands as a complete statement, a well–woven series of pieces, many of them dance figures that both fit and transcend Frisell’s unique brand of psychedelic Americana. Here the emphasis is on the Americana, as acoustic pieces with a rural feel take center stage, the electricity coming in bursts of modernity that give contemporary relevance to a lesson in the timeless beauty of folk art. The old-new feel is apparent in almost every tune as fiddle melodies blend with wailing electric guitar and cricket-like percussive chirps share the air with digital beeps and buzzes. The handful of tunes not composed by Frisell—from Sam Cooke, Thelonious Monk and Lee Konitz—represent America’s soul and quirkiness. Even Boubacar Traore’s “Baba Drame” with its Afro-pop rhythms and celebratory chorus fits the mix with its soulful, imported blues feel.
Frisell uses the strings, cornet and sax instrumentation to underscore the rural-urban feel. Drummer Kenny Wollensen provides shuffles, waltz and funk beats, all with an inevitable propulsion, though he seems most comfortable driving the band with rock hard forwardness. Violinist Jenny Scheinman’s play has a tensile strength and a tendency to pair gritty single note lines with smooth harmonic blends. High excitement comes from Greg Tardy’s tenor sax on Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Waltz For Baltimore.” There’s a sultry, summer afternoon feel, sweet as lemonade, to Greg Tardy’s cornet solo on “Lazy Robinson Part 2.” Still, it’s Frisell’s amazingly diverse play—a blend of electric and acoustic sounds, of traditional and futuristic approaches—that gives this two-disc package it extreme color and emotion. Among a discography of distinguished concept recordings, History, Mystery is Frisell’s most realized, most American project.—Cabbage Rabbit