Bill Frisell: Orchestras – Guitarist, trio and ensembles become one multifaceted whole

Double release of concert-hall recordings features influential American’s regular trio plus Brussels Philharmonic and Umbria Jazz Orchestra

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Artist: Bill Frisell
Genre: Jazz
Label: Blue Note

The influential American guitarist Bill Frisell and the innovative English composer and arranger Michael Gibbs go back a long way. Frisell first heard Gibbs’s ingenious writing for the vibraphonist Gary Burton when he was a teenager in the 1960s; in the mid-1970s he studied composition with Gibbs at Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Since then the guitarist has played in Gibbs’s stellar big bands, and the composer has arranged many of Frisell’s compellingly unconventional tunes – in 2015 they collaborated on an album with the NDR Bigband. A longstanding ambition to record with an orchestra, however, has eluded them.

Until now. In fact, on this double release of concert-hall recordings with his regular trio of Thomas Morgan, on bass, and Rudy Royston, on drums, Frisell gets to play Gibbs’s orchestrations with two large ensembles: the 59-strong Brussels Philharmonic and the 11-piece Umbria Jazz Orchestra. “To say this is a dream come true would be an understatement,” Frisell writes in a short liner note.

Far from being a predictable soloist-with-strings project, Orchestras fully integrates guitarist, trio and ensembles into one multifaceted whole. Not all of the 16 selections are Frisell originals – there are striking explorations of two famed Gibbs themes, Sweet Rain and Nocturne Vulgaire, and supersmart orchestrations of timeless songs such as Lush Life and Beautiful Dreamer. On Frisell standards that include Strange Meeting, Lookout for Hope and his masterpiece Throughout, however, the arrangements seem to take on an entirely different dynamic and dimension; it’s as if they are projections of Frisell’s searching and sometimes mysterious musical imagination itself.

It is also fascinating to compare and contrast: the philharmonic sounds lush, cinematic and darkly romantic; the jazz orchestra feels more earthy and laidback – there is a kind of easy dissonance to its mood. A triple-LP version, which includes a bonus album of additional concert material, mostly featuring the trio alone, is available for completists.


Frisell once remarked that Gibbs’s inspired and insightful arrangements of his music “just feel like the inside of my brain – or what I wish was the inside of my brain”. Perhaps it takes a lifetime, but Orchestras is that wish fulfilled.

Philip Watson

Philip Watson

Philip Watson is a freelance journalist and author. He writes about jazz for The Irish Times