Guitar in the Space Age keeps the trend going. The pitch: Frisell and Leisz tag-team great six-string showcases of their youth. The Chantays are here (“Pipeline”) along with their peppy younger brothers the Beach Boys (“Surfer Girl”). Duane Eddy comes by to run through “Rebel Rouser,” then it’s across the ocean for the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You.” As on the Lennon disc, many of the songs faithfully replicate the originals—perhaps too faithfully. Frisell picks out some sadly neglected classics, but there’s not much abstraction or deconstruction here; a version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” slavishly replicates all the bubble-gum jangle of the Byrds’ version. (Incredibly, Frisell’s version is even shorter than McGuinn and company’s.) Link Wray’s “Rumble” is rendered with carefully reproduced distortion.
That’s not to say there aren’t great moments. When Frisell and Leisz take off on the third bridge of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr locking on the backbeat, it’s sublime. By slowing down and spacing out “Pipeline,” Frisell gives it an eerily open, movie western sound. There are moments like that across the disc.
Overall, however, it’s a little too perfect for the NPR crowd: middle-aged, kinda eclectic, but not very adventurous. Perhaps unavoidably for a set so heavily geared to surf tunes, it also feels awfully white. Since the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut its first side, there has been a lively debate about white appropriation of black music and the ongoing blackness (or not) of the music. As jazz becomes increasingly academic—and, critics say, loses its ties to black culture—there’s been an especially heated round of this fight. The only track here originally recorded by a black musician is Junior Wells’s “Messin’ With the Kid,” and that feels a little uncomfortable. (But it is fun to hear Leisz, one of the world’s great sidemen, stepping out front with solos on the record, including a Steve Cropper-esque turn here.) Guitar might have benefited from the inclusion of, say, the Delfonics’s “La-La (Means I Love You),” which Frisell is known to play live.
Looking backward for inspiration isn’t always a dead end—though the “standards” record, where musicians just run through classic tunes, is often the dullest kind of jazz. The problem is that as with some of the more worn-out standards, the songs here don’t offer much possibility; a tune like the Tornados’ delightful proto-synth-pop kitsch “Telstar” simply can’t bend that much before it breaks, though Frisell takes it to that limit. Guitar suffers by comparison with the trumpeter Ron Miles’s new record, out on October 14, with a trio that includes Frisell and drummer Brian Blade—and, which, perhaps not coincidentally, includes Giuffre’s “Two Kinds of Blues.” Miles’s Circuit Rider doesn’t bear much resemblance to the popular idea of What Jazz Should Sound Like, and it borrows from country textures too, but the songs offer more space for harmonic expression.
Maybe all of this seems a little churlish. If a bunch of outrageously talented baby boomers get together to play old tunes, is that so terrible? There’s plenty of bad music out there; why object to the good? Why begrudge Frisell and his friends a trip down memory lane? Perhaps you can’t, in good faith. Still, it’s fair to predict that this isn’t going to go down as one of Frisell’s marquee records. The man can have his nostalgia, but please: Make some weird, jarring music sometime soon, too.