Bill Frisell’s Pan-Americana

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 12.07.11 in Spotlights

Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell, the singular and much admired/emulated jazz guitarist, is a case study in uncategorizability. As he’s often said, in one form or another: First I was tagged as the ECM guy, then the downtown guy, then the Americana guy.

In reality, those were all always the same guy.

As early as the 1982 recordings for his debut on ECM, In Line – solos, overdubbed solos and duets with bassist Arild Andersen – there was this odd whiff of country music in his improvising. His most imitated stuff – the volume-pedaled notes swelling up from silence, his whammy-bar bent tones and his slow drowsy vibrato – conjured pedal steel guitar, not his hero Jim Hall.

Makes some kind of sense: Country radio was ambient sound when Frisell was growing up in Colorado. He also loved wide-open spaces; loved the pure sound of a long note hanging in the air. (That made him a good for reverb-friendly ECM.) But he was steeped in jazz, mindful of how pianist Thelonious Monk could milk a few stark notes, forcefully applied at precisely the right moment.

Caribbean calypso was an odder influence, but then Sonny Rollins is another idol. In 1981, Frisell recorded Paul Motian’s island-riddim’d “Mandeville” with the drummer’s excellent quintet of up-and-comers. That band got whittled down to a trio with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, one of the great working jazz groups for 25 years: slippery, confident, traditional and open.

The countryish echoes seemed more deliberate in Frisell’s classic quartet with cellist Hank Roberts, bassist/bass guitarist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron. The strings blend beautifully, but the harmonies always sound a little bit off, in a good way: pianist Bill Evans’s sublime chords with bent strings. On the quartet’s debut Lookout for Hope made in 1987, even Monk’s “Hackensack” has a porchy string band feel.

“Little Brother Bobby” is part waltz, and partly in two-beat rhythm that somehow sounds like country & reggae. On their exit album Where in the World? four years later, the long surprise coda to “Child at Heart” salutes drummer Sandy Nelson, early-’60s rock-instrumental god. This band’s a blender: Kermit bumps on electric bass under cello and jangly acoustic (“Smilin’ Jones”). Bill also had his noise thing. He works well with gadgets, especially little delay units: he loops and punches in phrases pulled from his improvising, with perfect timing (Lookout‘s “The Animal Race”).

The ’80s was Frisell’s New York/downtown period. As someone who could sound like himself in all manner of settings, he was perfect for John Zorn’s stylistic mashups, in the thrash-meets-Mancini band Naked City, and on Zorn’s grand pomo projects like Spillane. Frisell, Driscoll and Baron also did rollicking rockabilly-ish scores to Buster Keaton’s silent comedies Go West, The High Sign and One Week. The anachronistic music was oddly perfect for technically innovative films set at the fringes of civilization.

Have a Little Faith, recorded in ’92, celebrated the eclecticism. In a bold sweep, Frisell covered John Hiatt, Madonna, Sonny Rollins, Dylan, Muddy Waters and John Philip Sousa – but also Stephen Foster, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, three very different American pictorialists. The gem was a reduction of Copland’s ballet suite Billy the Kid, for the Keaton trio plus go-to accordion guy Guy Klucevsek and clarinetist Don Byron, who never sounds better than alongside Frisell. Copland brings out the guitarist’s playfulness and love of melody, his own tendency to reimagine the sound of the plains.

The follow-up This Land – featuring a sextet with three winds including Byron – showed how diverse influences played out in Frisell’s own pieces. “Jimmy Carter (part 2)” sounds like a sailor’s hornpipe arranged by Copland. “Amarillo, Barbados” is country & calypso, enlivened by Curtis Fowlkes’s Skatalites trombone and a hook that holds up to endless repeats. (Frisell heeds Monk’s advice: Always keep the melody going some kind of way.) The album’s also a showcase for the precise, concentrated drum power of funky swingy tight Joey Baron, as on the action short “Unscientific Americans.”

In 1995, Frisell finally embraced his inner ‘billy and began recording in Nashville. He bonded with bassist Viktor Krauss and steel guitarist Greg Leisz in particular. Later improviser/fiddler/violinist Jenny Scheinman with her high lonesome sound became a regular ally on the woodsy stuff.

Frisell has recorded a lot of open-sounding, slightly cracked rural music since. I’m most partial to the 2008′s Disfarmer, with the three players just named, and the cream of 2011′s Sign of Life, for his 858 Quartet with Scheinman, Hank Roberts on cello and violist Eyvind Kang. The pieces written during a Vermont retreat are suitably pastoral and timeless, music for passing the pumpkin pie around, and playing cards in the parlor later.

But that string quartet can get rowdy too. They first convened to play Richter 858, composed/improvised reactions to Gerhard Richter’s abstract canvases with their disruptive surfaces: one layer of paint partly scraped away to reveal the pigments below. The music has that same kind of toughness and textural depth, splash and color and idiosyncrasy.

One idea Frisell often returns to: how seemingly antithetical styles like blues and country have the same roots. Go far enough back, everyone’s drinking from the same fountain: Jimmie Rodgers mashed up blues, country, jazz and Hawaiian on “Blue Yodel No. 4.” Frisell’s unstated corollary: diverse styles can be reconnected, not by invoking old licks, but by starting over.

The pioneering jazz musicians grabbed ideas from anywhere; that’s why early jazz is full of classical motifs, tap-dance rhythms and Sousa-band strategies. Frisell’s like that – draws on the full range of stuff that reaches his ears.