A few years ago, in a DownBeat interview with Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, I asked the esteemed guitarists about their first inspirations. Their eyes lit up when the Ventures popped into the conversation – each marveled over absorbing the iconic instrumental band as teens. Both are baby boomers, as is their contemporary, Bill Frisell, whose Guitar In The Space Age! opens with “Pipeline” and closes with “Telstar,” two of the Ventures’ most famous tracks. Seems the music we all grew up with is always rolling around in our brains somewhere, often with a big dose of affection attached.
Guitar In The Space Age! milks that sensibility. Frisell, who was 12 in 1963 and did a good job recasting John Lennon’s music a couple years ago, rolls through ‘60s jewels on this one. Call it New Frontier music as played by a graying progressive as unencumbered by sentiment as he is unafraid of experimentation. From Duane Eddy to the Beach Boys to Link Wray, these gems are laced with shimmer and spark. Team Frisell includes bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wolleson, and guitarist Greg Leisz. Together they circle ‘round the melodies while offering a bit of expansion in the groove department. No flipping the apple cart here – the boss’s longstanding genuflection to melody wins on each track, and rightly so. The essence of the originals needs to be sustained for this squad to work its magic.
Politeness dominates. Even performances that could turn aggro – “Rumble” and “Messing With the Kid,” say – stay calm. And ballads such as “Surfer Girl” and “Tired Of Waiting” glide on a sheen that finds Leisz and the leader melding their strings as if consonance was nirvana. The country tracks that bubble up swing with a bar band’s nonchalance. “Cannonball Rag” and “Bryant’s Bounce” are snuck into the program to remind the kind of brilliance that was lurking in twangville during that time. Song-wise, Frisell is always on a treasure hunt (see his update of Madonna’s “Live To Tell” from ’93) and these nuggets from the “duck and cover” era gather steam when corralled together. Heard as a suite, it’s a portrait of a long-ago time painted by a guy who always has an eye on the future, whether it includes a jet pack or not.