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For his second album as a leader on Blue Note, Bill Frisell returns to the format that may suit him best: the trio. While last year’s Harmony was a collection of songs featuring vocalist Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts and guitarist/bassist Luke Bergman, Valentine teams the guitarist with just drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Thomas Morgan, showcasing a telepathy developed from more than two years as a live unit.The album puts Frisell’s inimitable playing front and center throughout a set of 13 tunes, eight originals mixed with an eclectic group of covers. The music is largely contemplative, probing and profoundly beautiful. With too many albums and credits to bother counting, Frisell has established himself as a guitar anti-hero, far more interested in sound, color and melody than six-string stunt work. Valentinewould benefit from a bit more fire, the sort that can be heard on 2005’s live trio effort East/West. But, at age 69, Frisell is comfortable being who he is, and that’s someone who approaches music omnivorously and holistically. He’s never been just a jazz guy.
Frisell is a player of songs, deeply exploring their possibilities rather than using melodies as mere launch pads for solos. He’s assembled a stellar program, starting with a splendid version of Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame,” where the guitarist breaks opens his whole bag — the warbly, shimmering tone; spiky high notes, rumbling low ones; thick, slurry chords; ringing harmonics — all while referencing the melody. Royston roams the tom-toms, accenting with cymbals, adding character by eschewing a straight mid-tempo groove. The title tune, an original, begins with a jagged melody in the Monk mode and slyly morphs into an easy-strolling swing. Frisell nods to his beloved Americana on the brief and lovely original “Where Do We Go?,” interlacing his acoustic guitar with Morgan, who subtly prowls the neck of his bass. The trio closes with the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” taken at slow tempo as they languidly unfold the melody. A poignant statement of hope in troubled times. — Eric Snider LISTEN OR BUY: