Bill Frisell: Sign of Life

Will Sign of Life generate nearly as much media coverage as guitarist Bill Frisell’s upcoming John Lennon tribute, due out in the fall? Fat chance. Still, Frisell’s second recording with his 858 Quartet deserves surplus recognition and exposure.

Like its 2005 predecessor, inspired by the abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter, Sign of Life finds Frisell exploring chamber-group dynamics and interplay in ways that toggle between composition and improvisation, reverberating soundscapes and spiky minimalism. The restlessly prolific guitarist wrote the album’s 15 tunes last year over the course of a few weeks. But as evidenced by the liner note crediting the collective for “all arrangements (on the spot and subject to change)…,” it’s clear he didn’t know exactly what he was contributing to the subsequent recording session until he began playing with three longtime collaborators: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts.

Owing to Frisell’s familiar touch, tone and affection for roots music, a few tunes on Signs of Life should instantly appeal to his Nashville-bred following, beginning with the loping, shimmering ballad “It’s a Long Story,” which warrants the reprise it’s accorded. The elegiac ballad “Friend of Mine” and the string-band-riffing “Suitcase in My Hand” rank high on that list, too, as each evokes a timeless quality. Much of the album, however, is devoted to tunes that possess a more curious and distinctive personality-the pulsating submariner “Sixty Four,” the unsettling portrait “Village,” the resonating strut “Youngster,” for example-and the arrangements take full advantage of the ensemble’s rich sonorities and intuitive level of play.