For some time now, Bill Frisell has been content exploring American music-and why not? The folk, country and jazz that informs his music has helped stamp Frisell with a personal sound and compositional style that is thoroughly American but completely different than anyone else's.
But with this new band, the Intercontinentals, Frisell looks well beyond American shores. Sure, there are familiar elements here: pedal-steel player and frequent Frisell collaborator Greg Leisz sits in, and Jenny Scheinman fills the violin chair. But then there are the new parts of the band: Malian percussionist Sidiki Camara, Macedonian oud/clarinet/bouzouki player Christos Govetas and Brazilian singer/guitarist/percussionist Vinicius Cantu ria.
Does Frisell subsume all these new voices into his idiomatic music, or does he go somewhere else entirely? The answer, refreshingly, is he does a bit of both.
"Boubacar," a tribute to the Malian guitarist/singer Boubacar Traore, opens with an unmistakably Frisellian gesture-a twangy ascending minor triad-and it's instantly clear that this is Frisell's music, not a pastiche of Traore's. On tunes like that bit of cowboy noir, or the upbeat and sunshiny "Good Old People," Frisell unrolls his now-familiar sun-warped and ambling melodies, which sometimes turn up a sharp edge but always give each tune a backbone. Rather than harmonic changes driving the music, everyone plays off the melody or else adds tiny details here and there, but more often than not Frisell or Leisz are at the center of things.
About two-thirds of The Intercontinentals falls into the styles of "Boubacar" and "Good Old People"; there are places, however, where Frisell gives up the leader role and switches to that of the noble accompanist. That's when the CD loosens up and gets interesting. On his bluesy and dancing cover of Traore's "Baba Drame," Frisell lays the foundation with a ringing accompaniment and turns the tune over to Camara's vocals and percussion. Then on "Y la," Frisell finds ways to slip his characteristic playing into Govetas' oud-centric composition.
The Intercontinentals may not expose a completely new side of Frisell, but it does range further afield than he has in a long time and the CD satisfies on all counts.