The allusion of the title East/West is an apt one; this live double-CD set is a study in contrasts. Recorded just six months apart with two different trios, Bill Frisell really shows both sides of his musical personality. The "East" disc was recorded in December of 2003 at the Village Vanguard with Frisell on guitar (acoustic and electric) and loops, Tony Sherr on acoustic bass and a bit of acoustic guitar, and Kenny Wollesen on drums and percussion. The program here consists largely of well-known standards with a couple brief improvisations and a single Frisell composition. The "West" disc was recorded at Yoshi's in May of 2004 and features Frisell (guitars, loops), Viktor Krauss (acoustic bass), and, well, Kenny Wollesen on drums (no other percussion), but this time the program is half Frisell compositions, a couple pop songs, and the traditional "Shenandoah." On the "East" disc, only three of the ten tunes are longer than five minutes, but on the "West" disc only one track is shorter than eight minutes! The preponderance of standards on the "East" disc keeps the players mostly on the inside tip, even eliciting laughter from some audience members when Frisell hits the intro to the old warhorse "People" (to which he replies, "you think I'm joking or what?"). They do loosen up a bit at the end, for a wonderful arrangement of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" with two acoustic guitars and looping aural detritus, and there's a fun gallop through "Tennessee Flat Top Box." The group improvisations also add a bit of spark. Folks who discovered Frisell in the late '90s with albums like Nashville are going to love this set.
Then there are the folks who discovered Frisell in the '80s as a major player in the downtown new music scene along with folks like John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz (fellow bandmates in the groundbreaking and genre-smashing Naked City band). For them, Frisell seemed to be losing his edge a bit as his trademark skronk was traded for acoustic textures. Richter 858 and the Grammy-winning (!) Unspeakable saw him revisiting that earlier sound to some degree, mainly through more extensive use of delays and loops, but the "West" disc here shows he's really back. "Heard It Through the Grapevine" starts out a bit slow, but right from the outset the delay plays a large role, ping-ponging ugly harmonics back and forth as an intro before hitting the first verse. It gradually picks up momentum, until the delays return and Frisell adopts a roaring backward-sounding tone for the end. "Blues for Los Angeles" has even more great looping, some pretty menacing sounds, and some fantastic soloing. "Pipe Down" (originally on Nashville) gets a much slower deconstructed treatment, then kicks into high gear with a serious groove. This set is way more adventurous than the "East" one, and might surprise some old fans who haven't been paying close attention of late. Frisell retreats a bit from the edge for the last track, a nice reading of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" where the delay plays little to no role. With both bands, the rhythm section offers great support, but interestingly, Tony Scherr gets a bit of solo space while Viktor Krauss gets none. Then there's the fact that the album is called East/West, but the "West" disc (the later of the dates) is programmed as the first disc, so you listen to the sets in reverse chronological order as well as the opposite of what the title implies (perhaps "West/East" would have been more appropriate). And while this set is indeed a study in contrast, the common thread is the absolute guitar mastery and singular style and tone of Frisell. His use of double stops, open string voicings, and chordal leads in his playing, not to mention that slippery tone, makes him one of the most recognizable voices in music no matter what the context. And it's clear that Frisell is at home in any context, from playing chestnuts like "The Days of Wine and Roses" to John Zorn speed metal. The fairly naked trio context of East/West really gives the listener a chance to appreciate exactly what he can do, no matter which musical direction they're coming from.