Bill Frisell, ‘Big Sur,’ produced by Lee Townsend (OKeh)
Possibly my favorite concert ever (I do NOT write those words lightly) was guitarist Bill Frisell in his valley debut, in August 2011, at PAC3 in Carbondale. Mystical, beautiful, moving, dissonant, melodic, fresh, even humorous — it had everything. Frisell apparently has similar feelings. That show debuted an unusual combination: string quartet of sorts (violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts, violinist Jenny Scheinman and Frisell) plus drummer Rudy Royston. It was a last-minute decision by Frisell, who originally had thought of playing the gig with two separate combos with overlapping members.
Frisell reassembles the group for “Big Sur,” and in a three-decade career of highlights, this is another. Frisell’s projects have variously been rooted in country or leaned toward jazz’s avant-garde, but this one finds a new direction, as Frisell takes on string-oriented chamber music. Frisell moves into the skin of a composer, writing all the tunes (including the rustic “We All Love Neil Young”), but there seems plenty of room for improvisation from the rest of the group.
If I can’t relive that experience in Carbondale, this is as good a substitute as I can imagine.
Aoife O’Donovan, ‘Fossils,’ produced by Tucker Martine (Yep Roc)
This debut by singer and multi-instrumentalist Aiofe O’Donovan seems a long time coming. O’Donovan, a 30-year-old Boston native, has been on the radar as a member of the off-center acoustic group Crooked Still and got a prominent stage as the featured vocalist in “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” the 2011 album by string stars Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer.
With “Fossils,” O’Donovan doesn’t do anything unexpected; it’s solidly in the rootsy singer-songwriter mode. Still, it feels adventurous and fresh, with O’Donovan writing all the material and Tucker Martine, who has produced an album by singer-banjoist Abigail Washburn, helping adorn the songs with accordion, organ, strings and more. A nice slice of Americana.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, ‘Love Has Come for You,’ produced by Peter Asher (Rounder)
For those who haven’t been paying close attention, Steve Martin is the wild-and-crazy comedian, or more recently the tamer comic actor from family-friendly movies, and Edie Brickell is a rock singer who fronted a hippie-ish group, the New Bohemians. But both have moved more toward rootsy music lately, with Martin focused on his banjo playing and Brickell using acoustic backing for her voice. On “Love Has Come for You,” both seem completely in their element. Martin’s banjo is old-style, Brickell’s voice is a dash of the modern, and the two are joined by fiddler Sara Watkins, bassist Esperanza Spalding and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin’s regular collaborators, with thoroughly agreeable results.