Being both prolific and consistently compelling in jazz is a tough trick; it generally requires employing the same personnel and a trademark sound but convincingly reinventing the surrounding context. Guitarist Bill Frisell has managed this feat for about a decade now, and his 19-track Big Sur album, his first for Sony’s re-launched OKeh imprint, expertly balances newness with his dependable delights. So we get Frisell’s innately beautiful melodic sense as a composer and his penchant for loping midtempo waltzes and seemingly through-composed, score-like work; his understated touch and influential tone, glassy and shimmering but not slick; and an empathetic chamber ensemble comprising familiar faces: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston.
The reinvention arrives with the album concept, but even that is rooted in the sort of extramusical inspirations that have driven so much of Frisell’s recent output. Written last year in Big Sur on a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival, the music often pointedly evokes that majestic stretch of California coastline. The album’s first and best piece, “The Music of Glen Deven Ranch,” alludes to the 860-acre property where Frisell wrote it; the strings’ gracefully curt ensemble parts and the leader’s ethereal guitar present a melancholy duality that defines the rugged beauty of hulking redwoods and dramatic cliffs. Alternately, “The Big One” is instrumental surf music, with a beach-party riff that Frisell inventively passes from guitar to the strings. For most jazz artists it’d constitute a surprise, but Frisell isn’t most jazz artists.