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Bill Frisell: When You Wish Upon A Star
OKeh Records

When You Wish Upon A Star isn't the first time Bill Frisell has tackled a film-themed project. In 1994, the Baltimore-born and Seattle-based guitarist, ably abetted by bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron, issued two albums featuring material he composed for three silent Buster Keaton films, The High Sign, One Week, and Go West, and subsequently scored the music for Gary Larson's Tales From the Far Side animated TV special. The key difference between these earlier releases and the new one is that, with one exception (“Tales from the Far Side”), none of the material on the latter was written by Frisell. In that regard, When You Wish Upon A Star has more in common with something like 1992's Have a Little Faith than the Keaton recordings, given that the 1992 set features works by Copland, Dylan, Ives, and Madonna in place of Frisell's own compositions. In similar manner, the new recording centers on music from film and television scores by Nino Rota, Bernard Hermann, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Henry Mancini, and others.

In keeping with Frisell's penchant for self-effacement, the guitarist doesn't dominate the recording but instead shares the spotlight with violist Eyvind Kang and vocalist Petra Haden, all three of whom are well-supported by bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. Haden adds much to the recording, whether it be singing a song's lyrics or wordlessly enunciating a melodic line (e.g., David Raksin's “The Bad and the Beautiful”), and Kang's consistently high performance level matches the leader's every step of the way (witness his mournful contribution to “The Godfather”). An interesting structure lends the recording shape, with film material from To Kill A Mockingbird, Psycho, Once Upon A Time In The West, and The Godfather rounded out by familiar movie songs such as “The Shadow Of Your Smile” and “Moon River” and music from the TV show Bonanza.

Frisell and company treat the material as songs first and foremost; soloing is kept to a minimum (his acoustic spotlight in “Moon River” stands out for being such a rarity) and self-indulgence eschewed. He's never been a standard jazz player—his style and sensibility are too idiosyncratic for that—and improvisatory moments are few and far between on the project, the guitarist clearly wishing to stick closely to the compositional structures of the material rather than use it is as a springboard. While such respectful restraint is admirable, some of the album's strongest moments arise when the band hews less strictly to the original composition and uses it as a vehicle for small-group interplay. The musicians do give voice to the melodic essence of “To Kill a Mockingbird, Pt. 2,” “The Godfather,” and “As a Judgment,” but they also approach the material with the explorative vitality of an instrumental improvising unit.

Not everything succeeds without qualification. Though the musicians give “Psycho, Pt. 1” a spirited and faithful reading, their version lacks the savage bite the strings so indelibly bring to the original film soundtrack (the ponderous “Psycho, Pt. 2” fares better), and “Bonanza” and “Happy Trails” come across as novelties at best. The latter's saved by the sweet sound of Haden's multi-tracked vocalizing; there's little to recommend “Bonanza,”on the other hand, when the band merely breezes through the too-familiar material note for note.

Further to that, the renderings of “When You Wish Upon a Star” (from Disney's 1940 Pinocchio) and Mancini-Mercer's “Moon River” (from 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's), as lovely as they are, verge on overly reverential. Better by comparison are “You Only Live Twice” (originally sung by Nancy Sinatra and written by Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse for the 1967 Bond film of the same name) and “The Shadow of Your Smile” (written by Johnny Mandel and lyricist Paul Webster for the 1965 film The Sandpiper), where Haden and company strike the perfect note. In these performances, the crystal clarity of the singer's voice and her sensual delivery dovetail seamlessly with the languorous flow of the musical backings. Caveats aside, the recording makes for a fine addition to a discography that when viewed in its entirety is impressive, to say the least. Without question, Frisell has produced an incredible body of work since his debut In Line introduced the singular guitarist's sound to the public in 1983.

April 2016