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Philip Booth reviews Bill Frisell's John Lennon tribute album
An entire generation of guitarists—musicians of every stripe, whether, rock, blues or jazz—points to the Beatles as a lifelong inspiration, beginning with their 1964 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Bill Frisell, who never met a genre he couldn’t straddle, is no exception. “The songs are part of us,” he writes in the liner notes to his latest, a salute to the music of John Lennon. “There was nothing we really needed to do to prepare for this. We’ve been preparing our whole lives.” These songs are darn familiar, maybe too much so, but Frisell’s approach to them is lived-in, bone-deep and occasionally revelatory.
These 16 arrangements of Lennon tunes, from Beatles albums and solo releases, grew out of Frisell’s 2005 tour with guitarist Greg Leisz and violinist Jenny Scheinman, augmented by bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen during a 2010 residency at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The intertwining is the thing, and the instruments meld beautifully, occasionally hinting at the kind of Americana textures heard on Frisell’s 1997 Nashville album. Flickering strings and a unison guitar-and-violin melody are heard on a beautifully mournful “Julia,” while another Lennon favorite, “Imagine,” takes its time getting to the melody, with criss-crossing fiddle and steel guitar supporting the leader’s reading of the theme.
Frisell opens the disc with a quiet, brooding “Across the Universe,” all sparkling harmonics, delicate cymbals and tender chording. While the album is dominated by mellow pieces, several rockers do show up to enliven the proceedings, including the slightly overdriven guitars, high-flying fiddle and country stomp of “Revolution”; a dissonance-buzzed “Come Together,” replete with a long, effects-drenched outro; and a stark, hard-slamming “Mother” that builds into a furious jam. The closing, dirge-speed “Give Peace a Chance” makes for a noisy electric tone poem. Audacious stuff.