History, Mystery is among Bill Frisell's most eclectic yet accessible projects. Produced by longtime ally Lee Townsend, this double-disc, 90-minute, 30-piece suite encompasses the full range of Frisell's musical past and his influences, obsessions, and storylike vision. It is performed by a star-studded octet that includes trumpeter Ron Miles, saxophonist Greg Tardy, and a string section featuring Eyvind Kang, Jenny Scheinman, and Hank Roberts, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen in the rhythm section. History, Mystery dances across entire musical landscapes: bebop/post-bop, Malian folk music, tangos, Delta blues, modern classical music, vintage soul, and rock. The source material for this recording was compiled from a multimedia collaboration with artist Jim Woodring called Mysterio Sympatico in 2002 and recorded during a tour. The rest was recorded for Stories from the Heart of the Land, a 2007 series on National Public Radio. Frisell composed most of this work, but his own "history" is revealed in his choice of covers: Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," "Jackie-Ing" by Thelonious Monk, "Sub-Conscious Lee" by Lennie Tristano, and "Baba Drame" by Malian guitar legend Boubacar Traoré. The sense of "mystery" is in just how these various sources are melded in a multi-textured tapestry of sound. Balance for this work is achieved in the strength of its arrangements, and the glue that binds them together is the string section. Its role is pivotal: it anchors the listener through its many stylistic and textural changes. The notion of "history" here is also revealed in the way songs are juxtaposed. For instance, a soul tune like "A Change Is Gonna Come" actually precedes a knotty yet swinging bop number like "Jackie-Ing."
Non-American sources are cited, too. The nuevo tango-inspired "Probability Cloud" is the theme that bookends disc one. It begins as a digital guitar soundscape before an Astor Piazzolla-inspired tango comes to the fore in the strings.Traoré's droning desert blues "Baba Drame features an interlude that evokes late-19th century Spanish folk music, itself inspired by the chants and sung prayers of the Moors centuries before. Disc two engages themes, departures, and returns in numerous ways: the haunting, near-ambient "Monroe," with guitar and viola in the forefront; the spectral "Lazy Robinson" that floats between carnival music and modern classical composition with a rock backbeat (in waltz tempo); and the two-part "Answer," a strange, nightmarish, and disorienting sketch where the strings play an actual counterforce to Frisell's guitar. The music here is very adventurous and exploratory yet completely accessible. "Faces," with its traces of Gil Evans and Igor Stravinsky, contrasts wonderfully with the tough bebop in "Sub-Conscious Lee (itself furthered by Scheinman's violin referencing Stéphane Grapelli's Gypsy swing). "Waltz for Baltimore" places the grittiness of Tardy's guttural rhythm & blues honk against Frisell's elegant, modernist jazz chords; they are both made slightly surreal by Scheinman's violin, playing a minimal loop that bridges and yet displaces eras in ether. History, Mystery is an ambitious work; it's full of elliptical, riveting moments, shape-shifting colors, and multivalent textures.Frisell's inherent love of formal lyricism, expansive harmonics, and divergent musical histories reflects his tireless passion for tracing sources. In composing his own material, he also interprets and arranges his sources. On History, Mystery he achieves musical alchemy; he creates something new from familiar, exotic, and even forgotten forms, providing listeners with a magical aural experience.