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Bill Frisell and Vinicius Cantuária bring description-defying "Lágrimas Mexicanas" to Skirball on Sunday

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Interesting thing, reading reviews of Lágrimas Mexicanas, the entrancing collaborative album by genre-defying guitarist Bill Frisell and Brazilian innovator Vinicius Cantuária released in 2001. Almost to a one, they glowingly rave about the music, the pointillist portraits made by the musicians’ guitars, interwoven with with Cantuária’s poetically conversational vocals, just as strains evoking various cultures — mostly of Latin and South American roots, ancient and modern — weave together in a colorful braid. 

But in review after review, there is little, if anything, about the lyrics.

“Oh dear, you caught me, now!” says Frisell, asked to elaborate on what the critics have omitted. “That’s a difficult one for me.”

The reviewers, it seems, are not the only ones to take in the sounds without exploring the specifics of the words. Frisell sheepishly admits that not speaking Brazilian Portuguese or Spanish, the two languages that Cantuária uses for most of the songs with just a little English tossed in, he only has vague impressions of what the songs are about. 

That’s okay. The songs themselves are impressions, observations of life around the Brooklyn neighborhood where Cantuária has lived for much of the last 25 years.

“It’s sort of impressions that he gets from being in that neighborhood, and there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people around,” Frisell says, noting that Spanish not being Cantuária’s first language adds a layer of impressionism to the project. “He would pick up little vignettes, people walking by, a guy and a girl walking but, talking, stories of people falling in love, this or that. Almost don’t want to say it, but ‘dreamlike.’”

If you speak Spanish and/or Portuguese, you may get more specifics when the pair perform this material at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sunday, a rare concert presentation of this. Or maybe not. Cantuária had headed to Brazil and was unavailable for interview, but in a video about the making of the album, he didn’t offer much more beyond what Frisell has been able to glean. 

So, let’s look at the music, then. Are there specific cultures or traditions in the playing that reflects the scenes being portrayed?

“Not for me,” Frisell says. “I shouldn’t speak for him, just because he was going into whatever this imaginary world was for him. Maybe there was more specific thinking about a style or something. But I don’t think that’s the way he thinks either. He’s incredible the way melodies come out of him. He’s a melody machine. I’ve watched the way he writes songs. He’s got his guitar and seems to be an incredible wealth of melody floating around in his head that just comes out.”

Okay, vague there too. But maybe that’s fitting. Pinning down either lyrics or music would be inconsistent with the music these two have made over the course of remarkably productive decades. Frisell is generally tagged as a jazz musician, but even in its most broad applications, it doesn’t begin to cover what he’s done. Whether applying his talents to music rooted in jazz (regular collaborations with such giants as drummer Paul Motian and bassist Charlie Haden) or country (a series of Nashville recordings over the years) or movie accompaniment (his distinctive score to The Great Flood,  a film about the 1927 Louisiana flood, was performed live with the film at UCLA’s Royce Hall in the fall) or world music, he transcends any categorization. And yet there’s always a recognizably personal touch, a warm yet sharp tone following always-surprising twists. A version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” performed with his chamber-jazz trio at a recent Walt Disney Concert Hall appearance was jaw-dropping in its inventive musicality, while revelatory in the rich possibilities still to explore even in such a familiar song.

Cantuária, as well, has side-stepped easy labeling throughout his journey as a writer and musician, as singular and distinctive as the work of such associates as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and David Byrne. 

Lágrimas manages to sound like both of them, yet in a way that’s distinctive from the rest of their respective, vast catalogs. There are no solos, per se, and more often than not it’s hard to distinguish who plays what, a blend that is free of calculation and guile, and full of the pure joy of two master musicians and friends stimulating each others’ imagination. It’s remarkable, given that their partnership, such as it is, has existed only in bits and pieces, starting with Frisell contributing to a Cantuária album in the late ‘90s and the Brazilian being part of Frisell’s Intercontinentals band for recordings and one tour. And the handful of concerts of the material from the recent album have been marked by spontaneity. 

So make of it whatever you will. Just as Frisell will be doing on Sunday.

 “Will it be like the record?” he says. “Not at all. I sort of enter into his place, and he’s doing the same with me, and it becomes this other thing. It works best when I’m not actually thinking at all, or my awareness of my own doing things disappears. That’s the best for me.”