As Bill Frisell approaches 60, it is reassuring that he retains the same exploratory, genre-hopping approach he has adopted throughout his career. Frisell has never been a straightforward jazz guitarist but, after releasing 21 eclectic albums in as many years on Nonesuch, Beautiful Dreamers marks his debut on the renowned Savoy Jazz label.
The album features the country-tinged trio that Frisell put together in 2008 with long-time associate Eyvind Kang on viola and drummer Rudy Royston. The time they have spent playing together means they sound easy in each other's company, and the music reflects their comfort. On much of it, they could be relaxing together on the porch, trading licks and having fun. In particular, the flowing interactions of the guitar and viola echo a range of music from Django Reinhardt with Stephane Grappelli through to bluegrass.
Maybe in deference to Savoy's jazz heritage, in true jazz fashion the 16 tracks here are peppered with cover versions alongside new Frisell compositions. Of those covers, the most surprising is a faithful version of Benny's Bugle by Benny Goodman. Frisell does justice to the part originally played by guitar legend Charlie Christian, although his mellow guitar tone is warmer and softer than Christian's was.
On covers of familiar pieces like Stephen Foster's Beautiful Dreamer, Tea for Two and Goin' Out of my Head, the trio do not adopt the standard jazz ensemble approach by playing the theme upfront followed by solos. Instead, they are more restrained and economical, teasing out the well-known melodies or allowing them to slowly emerge from the threesome's playful improvisatory approach.
There are also more up-tempo moments here to punctuate the laidback mood, delightful as that is. On the Frisell original Winslow Homer, the trio slowly build an infectious dance rhythm, propelled by Royston. In similar fashion, another Frisell piece, Better Than a Machine, maintains a danceable toe-tapping groove throughout.
Taken together, Frisell's run of Nonesuch albums has been one of the most consistently excellent bodies of work in recent decades. Now, Beautiful Dreamers extends it further. The future looks bright for this trio.