This is the cover album done right.
And given the number of eyes that roll when artists announce they’re recording cover albums, it’s a rarity.
Bill Frisell, however, has an impressive résumé. He hammered out power chords for John Zorn’s Naked City. Reinterpreted the duet album of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. And the likes of Norah Jones rip off his seamless blend of country and jazz.
But Have a Little Faith, Frisell’s cover album from 1993, reaches for a breadth that only begins to demonstrate the guitarist’s catholic influences.
The artists covered on the album is an ambitious lot — Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Bob Dylan, Madonna. And that’s only the first half.
Have a Little Faith begins with Frisell’s arrangement of Copland’s entire ballet suite, Billy the Kid. It’s an obvious match — Copland brought American influences to European art music tradition in the same way Frisell does with improvisation.
And yet, Frisell manages to get closer to the roots of Copland’s inspiration by his choice of band — Don Byron on clarinet, Guy Klucevsek on accordion, Joey Baron on drums, Kermit Driscoll on bass.
The quintet infuses Billy the Kid with the rustic immediacy Copland attempted to bring to the symphony orchestra.
Frisell, however, does exercise his creative license to alter the source material. During “Gun Battle”, Frisell puts his guitar through the wringer to produce timbres closer to Charles Ives than to Copland.
Speaking of Ives, Frisell includes two excerpts from Three Places in New England. The way Frisell’s band plays it, the piece could have been written in the last 20 years.
On a far lighter note, Frisell does a pretty straight reading of John Phillip Sousa’s “Washington Post March”. It’s a welcome addition to an album with a lot of poignant moments.
Perhaps the most poignant is his 10-minute rendition of Madonna’s “Live to Tell”. Frisell strips away most of the original song’s gloss to concentrate on the melody, but at the point where original stops for a short restatement of the hook, he lets it goes haywire instead.
The song ends with a rock backbeat, only to dissolve at the end. When someone can turn an early Madonna song into a serious performance, it deserves attention.
His interpretation of the classic standard “When I Fall in Love”, immortalized by Nat “King” Cole, turns into a haunting, sparse piece.
Even on his more straightforward performances — Bob Dylan’s “Just a Woman” and John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me” — the voice is clearly Frisell’s. These may be other people’s music, but he’s made them his own.
Which is one half of the equation for a great cover. The other is maintaining the spirit of the original.
Frisell may have taken Madonna’s song to places its never gone, but he maintains its sense of regret. He may have reduced Copland’s big score to five instruments, but he preserved the feel of the Wild West.
That Frisell can achieve that balance on material as far ranging as classical and pop music is an amazing feat.
Have a Little Faith proves cover albums can be a means of true creative expression, not indulgence.