12 Songs
Cryptogramophone CG125

It’s Mostly Residual
Artists Share No #

Guitarist Bill Frisell is a featured player on both these CDs, which also include among the personnel a bassist, a drummer and a cornetist or trumpeter. Each is lead by a youngish instrumentalist, brought up on the West Coast and whose talent has subsequently led to high-profile gigs in New York, where both now live. Two more dissimilar sessions you couldn’t imagine.

It isn’t just the personnel, although IT’S MOSTLY RESIDUAL is a quartet date and the group on some of 12 SONGS’ tracks swells to septet size. Rather it’s that the former disc is on this side of frantic, completing trumpet Cuong Vu’s trilogy of almost punk-rock fuelled releases – albeit this time in quartet, rather than trio formation. When the pace slows down the unforced, polyphonic tones resemble some of the hipper lines written by guitarist Pat Metheny, in whose group, the Seattle-raised Vu has been featured the past few years.

Conversely, violinist Jenny Scheinman’s release is mostly folksy and laid back, infused with the rowdy, under-inhabited spirit of the back-to-the-land California commune where she was raised. At the same time, the CD doesn’t the neglect other facets of her experience, which at gigs in the Bay area and then New York, have included membership in the avant-rock band, The Charming Hostesses, backing singers Norah Jones and Elvis Costello, a niche in most of Frisell’s recent projects, part of the Big Apple Circus band and a duo with adventurous pianist Myra Melford.

Vu himself admits that IT’S MOSTLY RESIDUAL is the “last part of a period for me, where [bassist] Stomu [Takeishi] and I stumbled onto an approach and developed it and now we’re pretty much ready to move on to something else.” Not a minute too soon either can be added.

As good as some of the material on the CD is – and some of it is quite exceptional – the freshness behind the concept is beginning to fade. Vu’s idea of recreating power trio energy with his trumpet in the lead guitar role has worked well in the past. But the presence of Frisell’s real guitar unbalances the equation. More than that, as much as the guitarist’s heated flanges, rapid arpeggios and echoing riffs try to approximate energetic soloing, Frisell’s Eddie Van Halen-style licks often muddy the songs. Besides, today it seems, the fretman would much rather be Chet Atkins.

For instance, “Blur” features the guitarist’s chromatic frills that quickly turn to New Country licks, leaving the toughening of the beat to drummer Ted Poor – who also plays with guitarist Ben Monder – as well as dominant organ-like chords modulating from Takeishi’s electric fretless bass. Initially freeing enough space so that Vu can vibrate wall-of-sound radung-like tones from his horn, Frisell’s use of pulsing delays to distort and expand his string palate, makes the backing so dense and crowded that the trumpeting is almost lost.

On the preceding piece, Vu cuts his way through this rococo layering with a set of heraldic rubato notes. There are a few too many spacey Matheny-style echoes throughout, however. In truth, the individuality and palpable excitement of the Vu trio should arise from the trumpeter’s braying timbres extending an improvisation as if he’s scraping the internal metallic finish from his axe. Vu shouldn’t have to, as he does on “Blur” and “Brittle, Like Twigs”, make own his way as the guitarist tries out desultory guitar hero histrionics, and the bassist and drummer chug along like Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker backing Eric Clapton.

More notable, “Patchwork”, an almost 13-minute, long-lined impressionistic piece aims to be a Roots-Americana-style ballad. The guitarist finger-picks a rapid series of reverberating arpeggios as steady beats ease from hand drumming to martial. Finally Frisell and Vu connect in such a way that the Vu’s electronically triggered oscillations nearly replicate a second guitar line. As the two pan across the composition with alternating ratcheting and rippling hard pulses, it’s as if they’re two parts of the same instrument.

Frisell’s dual musical personality flashing between psychedelica and folksy at times undermines what Vu and Takeishi worked so hard to attain. This CD doesn’t impress as much as earlier trio discs.

A similar situation exists with 12 SONGS, but with Frisell apparently more in tune with his erstwhile sideperson’s vibe – and with more players available among which to spread the musical contours – the fissures aren’t as noticeable. However, lesser moments do occur in many of the shorter pieces. Scheinman possesses a sentimental streak as deep as the Mississippi, it seems, and too many of these balladic outings turn syrupy enough to resemble background fodder for oldsters’ dance lesson. Waltz-like and folksy, not only is the fiddler’s output solipsistic, but Frisell’s licks migrate past Atkins’ country-pop into lulling country-pap territory.

An obvious near miss is “Albert”, an adagio hymn dedicated to Albert Ayler. Featuring a meandering melody built around unfocused drumming from Dan Rieser and quivering accordion lines from Rachelle Garniez, it captures the saxophonist’s spirituality, but not his energy. Imagine any Ayler tune played by Fairport Convention and you’ll get the idea.

Luckily there are other more favorable tracks. “Antenna” initially balances on the contrast between country and western guitar lines and Middle Eastern-style bass clarinet riffs before oozing into near-minimalism. Frisell cranks up sharp, dissonant riffs, Scheinman counters with cross pulsations, cornetist Ron Miles spins out tremolo notes and bassist Tim Luntzel and Rieser rustle timbres sympathetically. With its cascading guitar snaps and contrapuntal fiddle swipes “Song of the Open Road” sounds like the kind of hobo song Woody Guthrie would have recorded if he was backed by funk-jazz guitarist Grant Green. And, despite its title, “Little Calypso” is a simple – almost simplistic melody of pumping near circus music that moves in rondo fashion around riffs created by Garniez’s calliope-like claviola, Doug Wieselman’s clarinet and Scheinman emphasizing the deeper, viola-like tones of her fiddle.

Lead off “The Frog Threw His Head Back and Laughed” has some of the guitarist’s best work as he joins with the accordionist to slide bluesy licks behind Miles’ mid-range trills and Scheinman’s fiddle work which calls on both Klezmer and Roma traditions.

An impressive group effort and showcase for Scheinman’s 12 songs, what’s really lacking is more tightening and focus.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Residual: 1. It’s Mostly Residual 2. Expressions of a Neurotic Impulse 3. Patchwork 4. Brittle, Like Twigs 5. Chitter Chatter 6. Blur

Personnel: Residual: Cuong Vu (trumpet); Bill Frisell (guitar,); Stomu Takeishi (electric fretless bass); Ted Poor (drums)

Track Listing: Songs: 1. The Frog Threw His Head Back and Laughed* 2. Song of the Open Road 3. Moe Hawk* 4. Sleeping in the Aquifer 5. The Buoy Song* 6. She Couldn’t Believe It Was True 7. Suza 8. Little Calypso 9. Satellite 10. Antenna 11. Albert 12. June 21

Personnel: Songs: Ron Miles (cornet [all tracks but 4, 6]); Doug Wieselman (clarinets*); Jenny Scheinman (violin); Rachelle Garniez (accordion [1-4, 6, 11-12], piano (5, 9), claviola (7, 8) Bill Frisell (guitar [all tracks but 8, 9]); Tim Luntzel (bass [all tracks but 8, 9]); Dan Rieser (drums [all tracks but 8, 9])