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Bill Frisell: Good Dog, Happy Man

Mild mannered guitar icon Bill Frisell’s drift toward the country end of the spectrum could be viewed as a departure from his jazz/new music persona, but it’s all of an evolutionary piece. He’s merely lifting certain strands out of the fabric of a voice dating at least as far back as his early ’80s debut, In Line (ECM). Like Chet Atkins, Hank Garland and other plectrists, Frisell dismisses lines of genre demarcation between jazz and rootsier forms with a sly grin.

Here, he reunites with bassist Victor Krauss and drummer Jim Keltner, heard on Gone, Just Like a Train, and brings along Greg Liesz (whose slide and pedal steel sounds nicely accent Frisell’s own quasi-slide naunces) and Wayne Horvitz, for B-3 texture. Frisell himself is often unplugged,along with his signature, painterly ethereal-toned electric style. The title tune is a mostly acoustic fingerpicking etude, structurally weirder than it sounds, while the sullen boogie tune “Cold, Cold Ground,” with its tweaked blue notes and sonic detours, is music for a roadhouse on Mars. His version of “Shenandoah,” with fellow guitarist Ry Cooder-a heady softy in his own right-is an instant classic, worth the price of admission. The closing “Poem for Eva” is a beautiful and offbeat melody laid atop that timeless pop chord progression, I-VI minor-IV-V, proving once and for all that context is everything.

The question remains: Is this a jazz album, per se? Do a few well-placed dissonances, angular riffs, or artful rhythmic displacement qualify it as such? No, it’s just the latest, logical extension in the saga of Frisell’s maturing voice. Triads galore, sweet tunes, organic funkiness, and a general laconic grace keep the music rooted, while also searching. What else could we ask for? Good Dog, Happy Man is a recording full of gentle things, bolstered by innate smarts and rugged musicality.

Originally Published