Bill Frisell’s spare, mysterioso chordal voicings are as evocative and haunting as the intriguing black-and-white Farm Security Administration photos from the ’40s that grace the front and back covers of History, Mystery. On this ambitious two-CD set, which covers an incredibly wide stylistic range, from gentle heartland melodies to cartoon music, soul music, Delta blues, Malian guitar music, bebop and swirling bits of sonic fantasia, Frisell augments those signature chordal voicings with strings (violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts from his 858 Quartet) and horns (Ron Miles on cornet, Greg Tardy on clarinet and tenor sax), achieving an orchestral effect. His longstanding rhythm tandem of drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr completes this eclectic octet.
Much of the original material here comes from a previous collaboration with visual artist (and Frisell’s fellow Seattle resident) Jim Woodring and was premiered back in June 2002 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Since the music at that show was written to underscore very specific images and cues, there is alternately a cinematic quality and chamberlike presentation about much of this stuff. And the quirky, somewhat twisted nature of Woodring’s uneasy images often called for music with a dark undercurrent. As Frisell wrote of Woodring’s wildly imaginative work in the program for the St. Ann’s show: “[It] comes real close to bringing up to the surface a world of things that are hidden, buried things you can only see in dreams.”
That quality comes across on many of the pieces in this brilliant pastiche, like the swirling “Out of Body,” the cartoonish “Answer #2,” the evocative waltz “Imagination,” the dreamy “Boo and Scout,” the ambient interlude “Heal” and the stately, funereal “What We Need.” Frisell’s turn-of-the-century chamber sensibilities come across in brief interludes like “Question #1” and “Answer #1.” The four cover tunes here—Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Lee Konitz’s “Sub-Conscious Lee,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and a take on “Baba Drame” by Malian troubadour Boubacar Traore—are all given a typically Frisell-ian treatment by the octet.
Scheinman contributes a beautiful violin solo on “Probability Cloud.” Roberts offers an edgy, avant-gardish cello solo on “Struggle,” then shows his lyrical side on the mournful “Monroe,” his ode to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. Tenor man Tardy blows soulfully and passionately on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” then delivers with blowtorch intensity on “Waltz for Baltimore,” a quirkily bluesy tune that also prominently highlights Frisell’s singular six-string approach. The chameleonic guitarist also turns in a wild, rampaging guitar solo on “Struggle Part 2,” burns in bop fashion through the frantic unison lines and changes of Konitz’s chops-busting “Sub-Conscious Lee” (based on the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love”) and skronks with distortion-laced, metalesque abandon on “Lazy Robinson Part 2.”
Probably moreso than others in his expansive discography, History, Mystery showcases the full scope of this enigmatic, abundantly gifted and quintessentially American artist.