“Some of this music we’re playing for the first time,” Bill Frisell told the rapt audience at The Barns at Wolf Trap in March. The jazz guitarist had brought along his new Beautiful Dreamers trio, and they were still working out their arrangements. Frisell, with his gray blazer, graying hair, and amber-frame glasses, led the way, teasing out sinuous melodies and his signature smeared-butter tone from a brown-and-white Fender. Eyvind Kang, in a twitchy goatee and brown-plaid shirt, responded by bowing or plucking his viola, at first in parallel to the guitar but soon in counterpoint. Drummer Rudy Royston, his height exaggerated by a black Adidas stocking cap, rattled his brushes across the cymbals and toms, creating a rhythm as translucent as the melody and harmony around him.
This wasn’t your typical jazz gig, where five guys in suits hurriedly get through the opening theme so they can each take a long solo that shows off his hottest, fastest licks, even if those licks have little to do with the theme. This was a three-way conversation where each musician seemed to be saying, “How about this?” and “Yeah, that’s cool, but how about this?” and “Oh, I like that; what if we do this to it?” If jazz is all about collaborative invention and democratic give-and-take, this was jazz at the highest level.
A few weeks later, the trio went into Berkeley, Calif.’s Fantasy Studios and recorded most of the music from the Wolf Trap show for an album called, yes, Beautiful Dreamers. It’s an important release not only because it’s full of gorgeous, adventurous music but also because it’s coming out just a week after trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Spark of Being: Expand. Frisell and Douglas, together with such co-conspirators as Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Jenny Scheinman, Esperanza Spalding, and Brad Mehldau, are spearheading a movement that is leading jazz away from an emphasis on familiar formats and fast, flashy solos and toward a greater openness to new instruments, new tempos, new sounds, and new repertoire. Both records make a powerful case for that shift.
Beautiful Dreamers, for example, contains 10 Frisell originals and six standards, and while the standards include Benny Goodman’s “Benny’s Bugle” and the 1925 show tune “Tea for Two,” they also include Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Frisell’s insistence that blues, hillbilly music, and doo-wop can be turned into jazz not only opens the windows in a stuffy musical house, but also makes his own compositions sound fresher than yet another rewrite of Gershwin chord changes. Frisell uses the viola as a lead instrument here, and in the past has made similar use of dobro, steel guitar, cornet, banjo, and looped samples.
Douglas has recorded a tribute album to Joni Mitchell and has worked with cello, accordion, and tabla. Keystone, his current band, features tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Brad Jones, drummer Gene Lake, electric keyboardist Adam Benjamin, and turntablist DJ Olive. Douglas has found ways to integrate these electric and acoustic instruments so the former don’t overwhelm the latter but engage in an equal back-and-forth. That balance is perfect for a soundtrack about Frankenstein, the tale of decaying nature jolted back to life by a mad scientist’s voltage, and Spark of Being does, in fact, stem from the score for Bill Morrison’s experimental Frankenstein film of the same title. The newly released version of Spark of Being: Expand is not the Morrison soundtrack, but rather a jazz exploration and expansion of seven themes from that film score. (On Sept. 21, though, Douglas will release a three-CD box set that will include this album, the actual movie soundtrack, and a third CD of music composed for the movie but not used.
But ultimately, it’s not important that Frisell and Douglas have tastes for new influences and new instruments; what counts is what they do with them. Neither Beautiful Dreamers nor Spark of Being contain a single lyric, yet both convey tremendous feeling, not so much through bravura passages as through charged textures and tones. Frisell’s “A Worthy Endeavor,” for example, pits the viola’s lovely, hopeful melody against the guitar’s prickly, effects-heightened doubts. At first the drummer sits back, allowing these mixed feelings to simmer, but he gradually increases the heat and brings them to a boiling climax. Similarly, Douglas’ title track opens on a squirming, chaotic soundscape of cymbal splashes and laptop bleeps before the protagonist enters in the form of a deliberate, dignified theme for trumpet and tenor sax. There’s a sense of slowly dawning wonder in the music, as if a reanimated corpse or a reinspired everyman were rediscovering the world, moving through the electronic chirping and trumpet fragments as if wading through water. Both the guitarist’s “Who Was That Girl?” and the trumpeter’s “Prologue” are romantic ballads that seem to ache with wistful yearning for something just beyond reach.
Both leaders are capable of playing brisk, thumping numbers, as Frisell does on the John-Adams-meets-Radiohead clockwork music of “Better than a Machine” (dedicated to Vic Chesnutt) and as Douglas does on the drum-driven funk of “Tree Ring Circus.” Yet both seem at their best on slower tempos where the listener can easily imagine singers taking over the wordless, punctuated melodies played by the leaders and their primary foils, Kang and Strickland. This is a marked change from decades of jazz practice where the most praised solos spat out eighth and 16th notes in long phrases that sounded nothing like human conversation. Frisell, Douglas, and their allies seem to be suggesting that perhaps jazz improvisation would be better served if it resembled athletic competitions less and dramatic dialogue more.