How can you not be curious about an album with this title? Here's an iconic guitarist with an instantly recognizable sound, like the previous generation’s Mary Halvorson, being the subject of the first of a multiple volume release of an 11 piece guitar less ensemble, the concept of which had been percolating since 2008. Tribute albums are persistently recurring flocks of odd ducks; meant to be more than slavish note for note copies while still retaining something of the embedded essence of the originals and being different enough to be reflective of the performing group’s persona. Frisell lent his approval and support by providing sketches for the cover artwork. This volume concentrates on releases from the late 80s and early 90s (except one 2008 outlier in History, Mystery, although some songs were recorded multiple times) with small groups primarily on ECM and Elektra, mostly featuring Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron.
Although the songs were much more than elementary structures by which to showcase the guitarist’s prodigious technique, his proficiency was so jaw droppingly advanced for the time that the first few listens usually were devoted to marveling how he made the sounds while bathing in them. Since Frisell’s partial task was to create a lush full sound out of sparse instrumentation, the Unscientific Italians were already there. By using soft tonguing and slurs with crescendos they're able to emulate the guitarist’s gauzy sound along with twittering clarinet and soprano sax notes emulating whatever electric sound modifiers resemble a swarm of gnats briefly in the background.
But the main appeal is a somewhat unexpected reminder of just how good these songs consistently were. Starting with an abridged version of the beginning of “Before We Were Born”, everything sounds familiar despite the passage of time; and, researching the original songs, “Unscientific Americans” was on This Land, to solve one puzzle. On “Unsung Heroes”, once the melody is established, rather than try to emulate the extended cello/guitar herky jerky back and forth between Roberts and Frisell they opt for shifting instrumental duo tradeoffs before a resolution similar to a Basie/Ellington power brass attack with the sheer blaring force of the horns lifting everything before fading to a quiet ending.
Throughout all the interpretations the Unscientific Italians maintain a certain yearning and appealing quality of Frisell’s playing that we've become conditioned to throughout his not small body of work. When my youngest daughter visited a few years ago she asked for some music I thought she'd like. I gave her Bill’s Big Sur; she never took it out of the player until she left. I'm already looking forward to the next volume by this quirky group.