Bill Frisell's Valentine  Gets to the Heart of the Musical and Sonic Matter

Last year, producer Lee Townsend brought guitar-great Bill Frisell’s trio, fresh off the road and shortly after concluding two weeks at The Village Vanguard where almost 60 years ago another famous trio made an indelible record or two, into Tucker Martine’s Portland, Oregon studio for three days of recording.

The result is a first for Frisell—a trio recording with long time accompanists, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston that is simultaneously densely packed with musical ideas and yet throughout, window wide open to the spaces between the notes.

The heavily syncopated set of melodic tunes flows with bell tone precision forged by years together on the road, though surprise and invention seep from every rhythmic and harmonic twist.

If you didn’t read the notes, you’d surely know that the title track was a Thelonious Monk influenced shout-out, though after the first play the album as a whole struck me as one a less rhythmically “straight-ahead” Chet Atkins might have managed—and surely one he’d have greatly enjoyed.

The melodies of familiar tunes (some of which Frisell has previously recorded in radically different versions) sometimes hide within the folds, creases and lurches of the harmonic and rhythmic structure.

Repeated plays fully reveal the tunes (even the familiar ones can sometimes hide in the syncopated, melodically deconstructed spaces) but if you want immediate access to all, begin with side four’s opener, a cover of the “What the World Needs Now Is Love”, the Bacharach-David classic Jackie DeShannon first made famous (Dionne’s was later). Grasp that one and the entire album’s musical game plan reveals itself—at least on the surface (much like the Evans’ Vanguard sessions). Or try “Keep Your Eyes Open”, which has a relaxing, tropical Ry Cooder-ish feel.

I’ve been streaming this one waiting for the double 33 1/3 vinyl. The Qobuz stream sounds crystalline-clear but cannot compare to what Kevin Gray did for the vinyl. You can wax (no pun intended) philosophical about the file’s “purity” and the vinyl’s being a “revisionist’ version but every step from the live performance is a “revision” and a form of signal processing.

Clearly Mr. Martine produced a record you will love listening to and Greg Calbi’s mastering is his usual great and respectful “touch up” (if one was required), but whatever happened in lacquer cutting produced a transient vibrancy, bottom end articulation, clarity and extension the stream can’t come close to matching.

Instrumental separation has been purposefully minimized to create a compacted sense of the trio playing close to one another. Frisell’s guitar is enhanced with a minimal and rapidly decaying reverb halo, leaving whole the delicate yet precise transient string attack floating willfully up front. Morgan’s bass lines are cleanly and forcefully rendered and Royston’s drums behind the other two add accents that surprise with each play. The sound of this record—the forceful bass set against the cleanly rendered, shimmering guitar lines will excite your senses and bring to life even the most moribund audio system.

Nicely gatefold packaged and at least my copy was dead quiet and perfectly pressed. Even if you have many of the 60+ year old guitarists records, this is a “must have”. And if you have none, start here, but note that the first one is not free.

The album closes with “We Shall Overcome”, which Frisell says he plays a great deal and will continue doing so “…until there is no need anymore”. Well, Bill, for now play on!

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Tasingegade's picture


I am a big Frisell fan but only own one of his records on vinyl. I love this album and have been streaming it and satisfied by its sound and even more satisfied by the great music (frisell + morgan make some great music. Check out some of their material posted on youtube and recorded live, e.g. version of Goldfinger) and will probably pick up the record just to support these guys.

My m.o. has always been, if it is recorded digital, just stream it and save the cash for all analog records. Your review suggests but does not state this album is digitally recorded. What sonic benefits can be had by listening to the record as opposed to the digital stream? I bought his recent Harmony album on vinyl (also on Blue Note I believe, also a great record), and though the record through my analog front end bests my streamer/dac in size of soundstage, I find the voices and instruments are more congested and less open, like there is an added 'warmth' to the lower midrange that is not natural and not there on the streamed version. This despite that my analog front end is comprised of rega and a solid state phono preamp, which i would not say does not tend to add color in the lower midrange.

So basically my question is, what technical reasons are there for suggesting that the LP of this digital recording are superior to streamed versions? I have never understood how that would be except that the record was remastered and therefore tonal balance changed on remastering?

Look forward to your thoughts.

thanks, Grant

Michael Fremer's picture
As I found out on the Tom Petty box, each format gets its own mastering and in the case of the Petty, the vinyl has the widest dynamic range--and that's true I was told of the all-analogue "Wildflowers" and the bonus material which is digitally sourced. I don't know what the Frisell stream is dynamically but I do know it's a CD resolution stream. I suspect (and I can find out) that the LP was cut from a higher resolution source. Also, consider that all of this from the microphone forward is "signal processing". Sometimes an all digital file gets transferred to analog tape as the final step to add some warmth. It's whatever works. Here, the stream (I use a dCS Vivaldi One streaming DAC/SACD player, which is no "slouch") doesn't sound as good as the LP, which Kevin Gray cut. Whatever was done to that file, it sounds way better on vinyl. If it's from a high resolution file, that might be a partial explanation.. I was at an event at a store and we streamed part of "Abbey Road"--the digitally mastered remix-- and then we played the vinyl cut from the master hi-res file. The audience was a mix of vinyl and digital enthusiasts. But 100% of the attendees thought the LP creamed the
Tasingegade's picture
MalachiLui's picture

reasons that vinyl can sound better than digital source files:

-some artists and labels never release their 24bit digital masters, meaning only CDQ downloads and streams. they'll still cut the vinyl from the 24bit masters.

-the cutting engineer's DAC is probably better than yours

-vinyl editions sometimes use more dynamic masters (but not always)

-not even mastering engineers can explain this, but there's always that added magic inherent in the vinyl process that digital doesn't have. this is essentially why ALL 24bit PCM or DSD digital cut to vinyl sounds better than the source file. (CDs rarely sound better on vinyl, and tape still sonically reigns superior)

the only new vinyl release (new album or reissue) i've heard this year that's worse than the source file is the strokes' "the new abnormal," which seems to use the already ultra-compressed digital master. the recording quality and music are great, the mastering not as much

Intermediate Listener's picture

Just ordered the vinyl, can’t wait to compare.

Andy1974's picture

Do you have any information on the European pressing? Does it use the KG lacquer & where is it pressed?

DaK's picture

KGs initials are not in the runout, so I think the EU pressing is a different cut.

Tasingegade's picture

browser problems, sorry if this is reposted.

In any case I wanted to share that after listening to the record, it is in fact 'better' sounding to me than the digital stream at 24/96, for whatever that is worth to the group. Maybe for one or all of the reasons suggested by Micheal and Malachi.