Jazz in the spotlight

Bill Frisell's creativity on full display, African jazz, Andy Sheppard's long-awaited solo project, and a stunning Art Pepper compilation.


"Disfarmer" (Nonesuch) is a tour de force of jazz creativity by Bill Frisell. Inspired by the stark photography of Mike Disfarmer that captured the spirit of "American Gothic" in the Ozarks of the late 1930s and early '40s, Frisell uses a variety of electric and acoustic guitars and electronic effects to create a profoundly eerie merger of old-timey mountain music and jazz. Among his cocreators are Greg Leisz on steel guitar and mandolin, bassist Viktor Krauss, and the versatile violinist Jenny Scheinman. Listen carefully to Scheinman's interplay with Frisell and you'll hear haunting echoes of East European folk laments. Retro-folk futurism with a global reach?


Frisell's Jazz-Americana works best when a complex array of visual imagery seizes his musical imagination. This DVD (Songline/Tone Field) reintroduces film soundtracks the Bill Frisell Trio recorded years ago as a CD. Synchronization with these three silent Buster Keaton films makes listening again a revelatory experience. The best of the films is "Go West" showcasing how a good-natured bumbling underdog saves a rancher from ruin while winning the rancher's daughter. Frisell's guitars appropriate motifs from Copland's "Billy the Kid" and vaudeville, while bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baton cook up a storm behind the ever-inventive Frisell,


African jazz, albeit with a pop lilt, has had only one international hit until now: trumpeter Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass." Guinean saxophonist Mamadou Barry may have created the next Afro-jazz sensation with the North American release of "Niyo" (World Village). This instrumental showcase offers nine original compositions that masterfully refashion US R&B sax soliloquies, creating original improvisations heavy with both African beats and harmonies. This is a far more ambitious African-jazz fusion that Masekela ever discovered. Plus Barry surrounds himself with several African drummers, vocalists, and a soulful flutist to keep the proceedings faithfully Guinean.


It is always a pleasure when a sideman in a big band for years, in this case Carla Bley's, steps into stage center and releases a long-awaited solo project. Saxophonist Andy Sheppard exceeds even his stellar past with Bley on "Movements in Colour" (ECM). Seven moody jazz tapestries are woven together by Sheppard, two electric and acoustic guitars, an astute bassist, and ... an Indian tabla percussion. Raga rhythms? Not exactly. More a bubbling rhythmic undercurrent to a mysterious set of tone poems illuminated by judicious electronic colors set against Sheppard's dreamy sound.


In spite of my initial skepticism about yet another "Standards" package, "Essential Standards" (Original Jazz Classics) deserves its title. This compilation CD showcasing the saxophonist Art Pepper's loving treatment of Tin Pan Alley's finest is an absolute stunner. Spanning three decades and a who's who of great performers, Pepper's sound continues to tug at heartstrings cross-generationally. The solo sax version of "Over the Rainbow" recorded near the end of Pepper's career in 1979 turns Harold Arlen's masterpiece into a heartbreaking, hard-won aria.

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