It's strange that one of the giants of modern jazz guitar doesn't play much jazz anymore. But then neither do his popular contemporaries. While Pat Metheny has devolved into an unlistenable, soft-stringed balladeer, and John Scofield, having survived a midlife crisis, is now redigging his straight-ahead funk-groove roots, at least Frisell's still willing to seriously consider the foundational concept of jazz: adventurousness.
Only, his tack is deceptively pleasant, preferring an elegant rewriting and deeply personal interpretation of the American songbook to an open assault on Americana convention. Sometimes Frisell's unequivocal niceness as unwitting, post-jazz folk hero is too much to bear, like on last year's excessively contented-feeling Good Dog, Happy Man. This third outing in the company of pop and country stalwarts Viktor Krauss (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums), whose collective credits include stints with everyone from bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss to iconic figure Bob Dylan, seems a bit too comfy-cozy, the music far less inspired than that of its once-fresh precursors Nashville and Gone, Just Like a Train.
Ghost Town, Frisell's latest album and his debut solo effort, shows that despite surface-level pleasantries real substance grows in the shadows — and that's what continues to draw jazz fans to this defiantly original guitarist. Beautiful, complex arrangements of the Carter Family's “Wildwood Flower” and Hank Williams' “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,” as well as haunting originals like “What a World” and “Outlaw,” arguably make this one of the artist's most moving discs to date. There's uncanny power in Bill Frisell's nice-guy posture. It's strange, but true.