If John Steinbeck and John Ford had ever decided to quit their day jobs and team up for a career recording jazz albums, the resulting collaboration would probably sound a lot like Bill Frisell's latest, Blues Dream. The guitarist's newest record unfolds like a trip through time, covering the great American music of the first half of the 20th Century and loading it up with a variety of scenes, emotions, and associations made along the way. Blues Dream is a lonely, dusty, open-highway, train-whistle-cutting-a-nighttime-sky of an album.
Mixing postbop, prairie folk, rural blues, and dust-bowl roots, Frisell's odd synthesis would mesh perfectly with a cross-country trip through corn fields and gritty desert roads, through small towns and big valleys. As usual Frisell has assembled a top-drawer backing band, in particular steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who actually has a whole track named after him. Leisz and Frisell seem to have developed a friendly, fruitful competition, pushing each other to new heights. The songs never fall into parody despite their reliance on traditional foundations. "Outlaws," for instance, begins as if it were lifted from a High Noon showdown but swoops and takes flight. "Ron Carter" begins with disharmonious horns but builds and swells into something quite flowing and beautiful.
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Again Frisell demonstrates how he can insert yesterday's influences into seamless modern-jazz creations. By offering listeners something familiar only to pull the rug out with adventurous side excursions, he can keep them guessing and attentive, unsure what to expect. This haunting, often melancholic album might not speak to everybody; people who have never crisscrossed the Great Plains or spent nights cruising across the high desert simply won't get it. But its remarkable ability to convey a sense of those places, in all of their timeless, idealized glory, makes Blues Dream worth a listen.