Unironic

Bill Frisell draws from a wide spectrum of music identified with the American experience&mdashand country music is a persistent echo.

By Francis Davis

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."

Frisell's distinction (his variation on Hall, one might say) has been to take techniques associated with high-decibel exhibitionism—feedback, reverb, distortion, and the like—and use them to assist in introspection. Next to his guitars and amp, the most important piece of equipment he owns might be the Electro-Harmonix delay, a "little box," as he describes it, that plays back pre-recorded sound loops of his own playing. "What I'm playing is passing through the machine all the time," he explained, "and eight seconds later or whenever, depending on the setting, it'll come back at me speeded up or backwards or whatever, as something I have to respond to." Over the years countless improvisers, including Miles Davis, have given the impression of being alone with their thoughts. Thanks to his loops, Frisell's thoughts have an audible presence.

If not for his guitars and the gizmos he plugs them into, you might never notice Frisell, and that would be fine with him. Words sometimes fail him, but his fingers never do. His notes are bell-like, and their order is logical and precise. His economy as a soloist—he somehow gets his point across in spite of never coming out and making it—gives his playing more in common with his speech than he perhaps realizes. The combination of Frisell's hangdog stage manner and his elliptical improvisations has always put me in mind of someone, and it wasn't until I sat across from him with a notebook and a tape recorder that I figured out who it was. In the 1970s sitcom starring Bob Newhart as a psychologist one of the patients was a chronically unassertive fellow named Mr. Herd. In one episode Mr. Herd took a job selling some service or other door to door. He had memorized what he thought was a good sales pitch, but he never got a chance to deliver it. Too shy to ring a stranger's doorbell, he would come to a house and cool his heels on the porch, hoping that the occupant would eventually notice him there and out of curiosity invite him in. Frisell's music is like that. It leaves an awful lot up to you, including the question of whether it's jazz or something else altogether.

"Oh, boy," Frisell said when I put that question to him, though he must have known it was coming. Jazz, he finally said, "is still the best way of describing ... the mechanics of what I do." He said, "If I have a pedal steel guitar in my group, someone can say, 'Oh, then it must be country music.' But that's just on the surface. The examples I learned from—Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk and people like that ... a lot of it is, for me, not copying them, or anything like that ... but trying to imagine what they would be thinking in the same situation."

"Then again," he added, after another of his characteristic pauses, "I guess I don't even know what jazz is supposed to be anymore."

From the archives:

"I Hear America Scatting" (January 2001)
The new Ken Burns series on jazz is good television but sketchy history. By Francis Davis

Nobody does, really. Wynton Marsalis and the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns might loudly insist that they do, but they are fighting a battle their side lost decades ago. Before 1960 or so, when there were essentially only three kinds of jazz to worry about (New Orleans, swing, and modern or progressive), educated discourse usually began with a definition, or at least with a checklist of attributes that supposedly identified a musical performance as jazz. These checklists were unreliable even then. Jazz was syncopated and made generous use of "blue" notes hidden in the cracks between the keys of the piano—but that was equally true of pop music, which, like jazz, evolved from ragtime and the blues. Jazz was improvised—but hardly ever from beginning to end, and in the notable case of Duke Ellington, who was a jazz musician by any worthwhile definition, occasionally not at all. The only safe bet seemed to be that you would know jazz when you heard it.

All that was before John Lewis and Gunther Schuller led a campaign to integrate jazz and the classics into a "third stream"; before John Coltrane and others began improvising on scales from India and rhythms from Africa; and before Miles Davis sanctioned the use of rock and funk riffs on his 1969 album Bitches Brew, forever blurring the line between innovation and compromise. So many other kinds of music have rubbed off on jazz in the decades since that a definition based on the assumption that jazz is somehow autonomous no longer seems realistic, let alone wise. It's jazz if the musicians playing it say it is and can find an audience to agree. About the only constant is that whenever something wholly original—a synthesis for which there is no ready-made niche—comes along, its legitimacy as jazz will be challenged by those for whom bebop remains the sole true path.

Frisell's music is a recent example. Frisell enjoys a sizable following, and his albums are generally reviewed favorably in specialist magazines such as Down Beat and JazzTimes; in fact, Nashville was voted the best album of the year in the 1998 Down Beat Critics Poll. But jazz critics are usually quicker than jazz audiences to embrace unorthodoxy, and Frisell's audience probably includes as many guitar freaks as it does hard-core jazz fans. Some conservatives would even argue that Frisell's CDs are filed under jazz just because no one in retail has a clue where else to put them.

Jazz criticism is no less subject to trends than the music it evaluates. For much of the 1970s and 1980s the African roots of jazz were presumed to be inarguable. Burns's ten-part documentary series, broadcast on PBS last year, reflected a shift toward celebrating jazz as 100 percent red, white, and blue. In what seems a blatant inconsistency, the fact that Frisell draws from a wide spectrum of music identified with the American experience is precisely what disqualifies him as a jazz musician in the eyes of some of those who have been waving the flag for jazz.

One reason Frisell is so difficult to place within the jazz continuum is that he has always seemed an odd man out in his own circles. He first gained widespread notice in the early 1980s, as a newcomer to the international roster of brooders and stargazers who recorded for the German-based label ECM; his playing and Pat Metheny's had a similar lyrical quality, and when Metheny moved from ECM to a major label, Frisell more or less became the house guitarist. ECM treats music almost as a form of prayer—a rapturous aesthetic, and one that was too confining for Frisell. He fell in with a roving band of genre-defying improvisers and composers who eventually set up camp at the Knitting Factory, a club on New York's Lower East Side. On any given night at the Knitting Factory in the late 1980s, depending on who the bandleader was and what older recordings he or she had recently unearthed, one might hear essentially the same group of musicians taking a whack at bebop, free jazz, fusion, Mahler, Ennio Morricone, Jimi Hendrix, or John Barry's themes for James Bond movies. The unifying thread was a sense of irony endemic to postmodernism. What set Frisell apart was that even his interpretations of such unlikely material as Stephen Foster's "Little Jenny Dow" and John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March" were relatively unironic—a better word for them than "sober" or "earnest," because Frisell's attitude toward such material was far from humorless. "s I get older, I'm becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of playing something that was a part of my life," Frisell told me, once we had broken the ice. "Some naive melody or childhood memory that I once would have thought wasn't complicated enough." The most surprising thing he said about himself was that as a teenager he played guitar and sang backup in a rhythm-and-blues band that required its members to wear dark glasses and flashy silver suits and to do nifty little unison dance steps, à la the Temptations and the Four Tops. Did Frisell participate in this choreography? "I did!" he said, as though he could hardly believe it either.

The son of a biochemist trained at Johns Hopkins, Frisell was born in Baltimore in 1951; his family moved to Denver when he was an infant. Both his parents were classical-music listeners (they courted at an orchestra subscription series), and at their urging Frisell started playing clarinet when he was about ten. Guitar was his own idea. "I was going to say that what drew me to it was the same thing that drew everyone—surf music and then the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show," he said. "Everyone I knew was getting a guitar, and I was just going along. But I do remember being drawn to the guitar when I was very young. We got our first television when I was about five, and I used to watch The Mickey Mouse Club every day. At the end the host—this guy named Jimmie [Dodd]—would come on to say good-bye, and he had a guitar with a drawing of Mickey Mouse on it. Something about that appealed to me. I got a piece of cardboard and cut it into the shape of a guitar and put rubber bands on it for strings."

Frisell's family relocated to New Jersey after he finished high school, and that was when he looked up Jim Hall. He enrolled at the Berklee School of Music, in Boston, in 1971—a time when most of the other students and even many of the established jazz musicians on the faculty were looking for ways to combine bebop and rock-and-roll. But Frisell wanted no part of this; he had become a jazz snob. "I was kind of stuck in 1958," he told me. "I had a guitar like Jim's and a tiny amp, and I just wanted to be a bebop guy. Then, about three years later, I realized I wasn't being honest with myself. It wasn't 1958."

The CD with Holland and Jones is the most clear-cut "jazz" album Frisell has ever made. It even includes a nifty version of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River," with Jones playing brushes. (Though usually celebrated for his muscle and perspiration, Jones is capable of astonishing subtlety; both here and on "Convict 13" he produces an effortless soft shoe.) In playing with Jones, Frisell wanted to "bring him into my space," he told me. "I mean, I didn't want to play 'My Favorite Things' with him, or any of the other things that he did with Coltrane, because that's not something I would be very good at anyway." Frisell is too modest. His long solo, over Holland's countermelodies and Jones's broken rhythms, on a homespun piece called "Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa" is Coltrane-like in its forcefulness and sweep. And on the swirling "Strange Meeting," as his improvisation grows heated, Frisell voices a few of his lines in octaves, as if bowing to the ghost of Wes Montgomery, the most influential jazz guitarist after Charlie Christian. The tune itself unfolds like a classic rock ballad—something the Eurythmics might have recorded as a follow-up to "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," their big hit of 1983. Country music is merely an echo here. That may be just as well, because Frisell's style is such a curious blend of influences (less a style, really, than a sensibility) that to overemphasize one aspect of it—which he does on Nashville and The Willies, as refreshing as they are—is to risk throwing everything off balance. But country music is a persistent echo, reminding some jazz listeners what gives them pause about Frisell.

A union of jazz and country is nothing new. In the 1930s and 1940s Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys created a vogue for western swing, an infectious style that set hillbilly vocals to scaled-down versions of the riffs powering the era's big bands. Over the years numerous country guitarists have had a go at jazz and have acquitted themselves admirably—Hank Garland and Chet Atkins are two examples. But jazz fans take pride in believing that in its couplings with other forms of music, jazz is always the pitcher, never the catcher. Influence is assumed to be a one-way street, with exceptions made for the blues and Afro-Cuban music because their racial origins are similar to those of jazz. There is a particular bias against country music, because it is so white-identified—and so tarnished with memories of the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Despite all this, jazz musicians looking for a change of pace have occasionally performed country songs or recorded with Nashville sidemen; so far only Frisell has made country music an integral part of his style.

Someone was bound to, sooner or later. Country has plenty to offer jazz, beginning with the virtue it makes of simplicity. Bebop introduced a new level of harmonic complexity to jazz in the late 1940s, and John Coltrane upped the ante about ten years later. Innovation has frequently taken the form of attempts to shift the balance to melody: the most famous examples were Miles Davis's use of simple modal scales in place of bebop chord changes on his 1959 album Kind of Blue, and Ornette Coleman's abandonment of harmonic guidelines altogether around the same time. There have been less celebrated examples, one of which seems especially relevant to Frisell—the group Jimmy Giuffre 3 of the late 1950s, with Giuffre on clarinet and saxophones, Jim Hall on guitar, and either Ralph Peña on bass or Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone. In the same way that Frisell borrows from country music, Giuffre borrowed from folk. He dispensed with the chattering cymbals and walking bass lines thought by many to be essential to jazz, and this made his group a source of consternation. But Giuffre's most radical departure from convention was in the deceptive simplicity of many of his compositions for the group, which were harmonically sophisticated without being arduously complex. Frisell doesn't seem to have been directly influenced by Giuffre. Still, he does seem to be moving in the same direction, toward what might be characterized as jazz by elimination—not jazz by default.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/07/unironic/302535/