For all the self-generated hype that Tzadik releases carry on their spine inserts, the one that accompanies Bill Frisell's Silent Comedy is pretty close to accurate. This really is the guitarist as you've never heard him before -- at least on record. He's improvising live in a studio with no edits or overdubs. Some of the 11 pieces included here carry traces of his signature bell-like tone, but this is a very free recording. The set's longest cut, "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home," is a meld of spaced-out sonic effects, harmonic invention, skeletal phrasing, and aggressive skronk that moves from halting melody to pure dissonance. Despite "Lake Superior"'s pastoral title, the cut is anything but; it's a monstrous Wall of Sound with digital and analog effects meddling around on a drone and employing a full range of distortion and feedback. Using a very limited harmonic palette, Frisell's guitar alternately takes on the tones of a harmonium, a Wurlitzer, and chimes to offer elemental sound contrasts that almost feel like counterpoint -- all in a gorgeous wail. While "Proof" is more conventional, with Frisell's instantly recognizable tone investigating a vamp from all sorts of musical viewpoints, the very next cut, "The Road," utilizes a broad array of tools in his effects box to create a restrained drone as the tonal backdrop, while a wah-wah offers a repetitive bassline melody but then breaks it down to an alternating series of small, moment-to-moment chord voicings, shimmering single notes, spacious delays, and even rumbling lower-string cascades woven together in a seamless fit. In the title track and in "Leprechaun," those effects are used with a requisite warmth and sense of humor. While "Ice Cave" walks a little too close to ambience for its own sake, "Big Fish" combines it with an inherent sense of melodic invention to create a tune that is nearly hummable, but traverses a fascinating musical terrain. This set will most likely appeal to guitar and improv freaks, as well as Frisell's most devoted fans. That said, given its intimate nature, it should resonate wider and deeper than that. He is doing things -- on the fly -- with his electric guitar and effects boxes that feel more like a conversation with a listener than merely an expression himself for his own sake.
Silent Comedy Review
by Thom Jurek