Sharps & flats

Homespun avant-gardist Bill Frisell explores the unfolding saga of the American West.

By Seth Mnookin

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Guitarist Bill Frisell is known as one of the most innovative avant-garde musicians to come out of New York's downtown scene in the last 20 years. He's certainly the most accessible. His work, regardless of style or genre, is always remarkably evenhanded, whether he's working with accordionists, cellists and clarinetists, or releasing country albums, film scores and slices of Americana. In the past year alone, Frisell has played solo shows, performed with his jazz-based quartet and twanged with his faux-bluegrass project, Bill Frisell and the Willies, which includes banjo and violin.

On his latest album, "Good Dog, Happy Man," Frisell once again expands his artistic palette, painting a country-tinged, broadly imagined soundscape that adds another chapter in the continuing saga of the West he's been working on for more than a decade. To accomplish the task, he's assembled a quintet that includes Wayne Horvitz on organ and Greg Leisz on everything from pedal steel to Dobro to mandolin. Predictably, the musicians here sound more organic and warm than cutting edge: While Horvitz is known for playing in John Zorn's Naked City projects, his "Good Dog" work on the Hammond B-3 is more reminiscent of a gurgling creek than a roaring river.

Leisz, who has played with Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang, is also a wonderful addition. Frisell has always been a master storyteller, and Leisz -- another musician who is more concerned with tone and space than the number of notes he plays -- helps tell Frisell's tales. The title track, a duet between Frisell on acoustic guitar and Leisz on lap steel, is one of the most satisfying songs on the album.

But as is usually the case with Frisell, individual songs do not stand out so much as an overall sound. While some songs are funkier (the Horvitz-led "Big Shoe") and some more laid-back, ("Shenandoah," performed here with Ry Cooder as a tribute to guitarist Johnny Smith), "Good Dog, Happy Man" is best appreciated when approached as an organic whole rather than a collection of parts. Fans of Frisell's toned-down, echo- and effects-led style will not be disappointed here, and neither will those with a more laid-back, acoustic bent.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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