After a nine-year hiatus, Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet recorded their second offering. Their elliptical debut, Richter 858, was produced by poet David Breskin (who also helmed the sessions for Nels Cline's Dirty Baby), and accompanied an exhibition by German artist Gerhard Richter. The music on Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartet was loosely composed by Frisell, and took shape in group rehearsals. 858's other members include violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, and cellist Hank Roberts. Recorded at Fantasy Studios in San Francisco and produced by Lee Townsend, the 17 selections on this set feel very organic. The album opens with Americana-tinged themes in the two-part "It's a Long Story" that nod to country, folk, and even Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" in its melody. "Old Times" hints at bluegrass, blues, and ragtime, but because of the complex interplay between the four players, reaches far past them into a music that is 858's own. "Friend of Mine" is another two-part tune; that said, where a pastoral theme is suggested in part one, a more mischievous one responds in the second some eight tracks later. Elsewhere, improvised classical motifs, jazz modes, and folk and other roots musics shimmer through these compositions, sometimes simultaneously and often spontaneously. The haunted yet restrained "Painter," which clocks in at under two minutes, is a modal sketch immediately followed by an equally brief, slightly dissonant pointillistic exercise in counterpoint called "Teacher." "All the People, All the Time" returns to more accessible and resonant territory but, as gentle as it is, it's full of quiet surprises and unexpected twists. For all of its space and economical phrasing, "Village" is downright cartoon spooky, and "Suitcase in My Hand," which jaunts along in a striding, near reel, is transformed by Scheinman playing country-style fiddle, though the rhythmic signature never changes. "Sixty Four," with its pulsing time and repetitive, slightly shifting harmonic line, feels -- but not quite sounds -- like something Philip Glass might have written if he had a sense of humor, and is the only place on the record where Frisell lets somewhat ragged sonic edges into his playing. Sign of Life is a curious, quirky, and deceptively low-key affair that is musically labyrinthine and ambitious; it's full of gorgeous spaces, textures, utterly instinctive interplay, and unexpected delight.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek