Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones is a jazz album, but one of my favorite tracks from it is a kind of modern-day cowboy ballad called "Justice and Honor," which the guitarist Frisell first recorded on Ghost Town, his 2000 solo album. This newer version moves along more briskly, thanks to Frisell's edgy interaction with Holland, a bassist who made his name with Miles Davis before winning praise as the leader of his own small groups, and Jones, the drummer who chased John Coltrane through his marathon solos in the 1960s. Who but the guileless Frisell would invite a bassist admired for his harmonic sophistication and a black drummer who gives the impression of being an African chieftain to join him for a rendition of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More"? The song, written in 1854 in response to a cholera epidemic and growing unemployment in western Pennsylvania, isn't one of Foster's celebrations of plantation life—but still.
Frisell's style of jazz has been tagged "Americana," because over the years he has recorded pieces by Foster, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland (along with ones by Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman), and because so many of his own compositions evoke images of "cumulus clouds drifting high above the Great Plains," as one writer put it. But Frisell has also played songs by Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Madonna—American originals whose music is likely to arouse feelings other than simple patriotism and national unity. And even at its most melodic and high-stepping, Frisell's music seems haunted and disquieted, more Edward Hopper than Grant Wood or Norman Rockwell, evocative not just of rivers and prairies and small-town parades but of lost highways, dead-end streets, and heartbreak hotels.
A rural sensibility has been discernible in Frisell's playing since the beginning of his recording career, in the late 1970s. Five years ago, at the suggestion of the president of his record company, he made an album in Nashville. "I hated country music when I was growing up in Colorado," Frisell told me recently. "It was, like, the most uncool thing you could imagine. But you heard it all the time, and it was right there in so much of the jazz and pop music that I really liked—Dylan, Sonny Rollins's Way Out West, the things that Gary Burton did with Larry Coryell on guitar in the 1960s. So going to Nashville didn't feel like that big of a jump."
Still, no one hearing Frisell for the first time on Nashville or his new The Willies is likely to mistake him for a jaded country session guitarist amusing himself with a few Django Reinhardt licks. It isn't just that Frisell's chords are more complex than those of most country guitarists, or that his rhythms are knottier than theirs. His music is moodier and more atmospheric than anything on the country charts, and it speaks with a different regional accent—it recalls an era when country was called country and western. Quartet, an album from 1996 that still represents Frisell's high mark as a composer and arranger, featured an unusual and spartan instrumentation of guitar, violin, trumpet, and trombone, with no rhythm section as such. It includes two trancelike numbers that resemble dissonant variations on "Deep in the Heart of Texas." The tall-in-the-saddle lyricism of his multi-tracked electric and acoustic guitars on "Justice and Honor" from the album with Holland and Jones recalls Gene Autry and other singing cowboys of the 1930s and 1940s. It also recalls the lone riders of revisionist westerns—all those reformed gunslingers and disillusioned ex-marshals whose peace with themselves depends on taking no more lives on their way to Boot Hill. In the Old West conjured by Frisell that's where every trail seems to lead.
I hear Frisell's music as dark, and this was something I brought up with him during one of his visits to New York last year from Seattle, where he lives. (A commuter to the city from Hoboken, New Jersey, for the ten years or so that he was a regular on the downtown music scene, Frisell moved to Seattle in 1989, soon after the birth of his daughter, looking for "an easier place to raise a kid" and "somewhere I could have a house and just sit down and think.") I asked if playing music was for him a way of safely channeling emotions he might otherwise be hesitant to express. He nodded in apparent agreement. "I think it's healthy," he said. "Maybe if everybody played a little bit of music, somehow—" He stopped, catching himself in a cliché. "I know that sounds ... But I keep thinking things might be a little better."
Frisell's end of a conversation is often full of repeated and amended and aborted thoughts—like David Mamet in slow motion and without the aggression or profanity. He talks as though he is almost but not quite thinking aloud. "I can't imagine what I would be like if I didn't play," he went on, his hands and then his fingers assuming positions they might if he were playing right then. Boyish at fifty, with round wire-rimmed glasses and wavy, colorless hair, he looked like a man playing air guitar but too inhibited to squeeze his eyes shut and toss his head back and curl his lips in simulated ecstasy. "Certain things that come out that way-what would they ...? How would they be expressed if ...? It's frightening to think."
When I asked Frisell what he had been listening to lately, he spoke enthusiastically about a version of Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" by the South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with a lead vocal by Dolly Parton. "She totally kills me," he said. "I love it when things go together that aren't supposed to but it all makes perfect sense." He might as well have been defending his apparent effrontery in having played the folk song "Shenandoah" the night before at the Blue Note, a Greenwich Village jazz club, with a band that included a pedal steel guitarist. "I like when it's impossible to tell at first if something is black or white, or country or blues, or whatever," he told me. "The simplistic way of looking at it is to say a lot of the stuff we listen to now started in Africa and evolved into the blues and jazz and everything else when it came to America. But you hear some of these contemporary African guitar players, and you can tell that they've been listening to hillbilly records."
For Frisell, this amounted to a speech. He isn't inarticulate or unforthcoming, just shy and noticeably self-conscious (he once told a radio interviewer that he hoped one day to work up enough nerve to sing in the shower). Frisell puts his shyness to work for him musically; it's part of what his music seems to be about. He has this in common with Jim Hall, a fellow guitarist who was already well established in jazz when Frisell, as a young man in the early 1970s, studied privately with him. "I had a total of eight lessons with him, and that was going on thirty years ago now," Frisell told me. "But that was the beginning of a lot of the harmonic things that I still do—harmonizing scales using different intervals, trying to break out of the stock chord voicings, thinking about harmony more like a pianist would." In the 1950s, around the same time that rock guitarists were first cranking up their amps, Hall discovered that amplification permitted him to play more quietly. "I love to take the sort of thing that Jimi Hendrix might have done by practically letting his amp explode," Frisell told me, "but sort of miniaturize that sound and have it be on the same dynamic level as an acoustic instrument."