When Musicians Surrender to Nostalgia

Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell's new record Guitar in the Space Age isn't revolutionary, and that's fine. But listeners should hope for more.

Paul Moore

What do listeners have a right to ask of musicians? Is it enough for them to produce beautiful, carefully crafted music? Or is there an intellectual imperative, a demand that an album function as more than just a 40-minute monument of aesthetic achievement?

The question seems especially relevant in improvisational music, where there’s a strong impulse toward difficult listening: Artists make records that are conceptually innovative … and sometimes practically unlistenable. For many hipsters and jazzbros, anything with a traditional ensemble playing swinging 4/4 time is a little suspect; a standards record is highly suspect. This tension has cut through jazz at least since beboppers in Harlem began deriding “moldy figs” playing traditional swing in the early 1940s.

The 63-year-old Bill Frisell, who is probably the most important and innovative exponent of jazz guitar in his generation, is a good case study in this tension. Deeply rooted in the avant-garde scene centered around John Zorn, he has often broken with tradition by playing a rock-style solid-body guitar and employing effects pedals and a squealing, distorted tone. Some of his records are challenging going, and some of the albums he’s appeared on—work with Zorn’s Naked City, for example—are good examples of the “practically unlistenable” strain. (Defiantly so: One track is called “Jazz Snob Eat Shit.”)

But non-jazz obsessives might be most likely to hear Frisell in melodic, rustic-sounding interludes between NPR segments. He started dabbling in a fusion of country and folk with jazz long ago, culminating in the 1997 record Nashville. Since then, Frisell has often peppered his records and live sets with tunes by country’s great Williamses (Hank and Lucinda), and many of his records and touring bands feature Greg Leisz, an ace pedal- and lap-steel guitarist. It hasn’t been a single-minded shift: Over the same period, he’s recorded with large, horn-accoutered ensembles, string quartets, and a trio featuring the old-line giants Elvin Jones and Dave Holland.

That dabbling has won Frisell fans and admirers in the pop and country worlds, and presumably, he has sold more records than he would have in the jazz ghetto. But these Americana sessions sometimes raise hackles among traditional jazz purists and avant-garde fans. For the first bunch, playing three- and four-chord Western tunes in the key of G or C represents a departure from what jazz ought to be: bluesy swing with rich harmonies. For the latter, Frisell isn’t fully embracing his potential as a creative musician.

Francis Davis addressed this issue head-on in The Atlantic in 2002, concluding that what Frisell is doing fits in the jazz’s melting-pot tradition. He likened Frisell to the clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, who borrowed from folk in the late 1950s. “Giuffre’s most radical departure from convention was the deceptive simplicity of many of his compositions for the group, which were harmonically sophisticated without being arduously complex,” he wrote. That’s a good characterization of many Frisell’s compositions. Even when soloing over a basic, folky song, he gravitates to dissonance, builds elaborate superharmonic structures, and destabilizes the rhythm with a quirky, distinctive sense of timing and syncopation.

In any case, the “is it real jazz?” question seems irrelevant today. The period of parsing and labeling and excommunication that surrounded Ken Burns’s Jazz is past; the arguments have moved on. It’s another line in Davis’s article that sticks out now. “As 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 him. “Some naive melody or childhood memory that I once would have thought wasn’t complicated enough.”

That 12-year-old quote certainly explains Frisell’s new disc, Guitar in the Space Age. By almost any rubric, it is not “complicated enough.” Frisell’s fine with that, and many listeners will be too; plenty of other listeners, though, won’t—and probably shouldn’t—be.

Frisell has been experimenting with not just recreating the textures of non-jazz styles but directly covering the tunes for years: Dylan, Copland, Ives, Rollins, Ciccone (er, Madonna). In 2011, Frisell released an honest-to-God John Lennon tribute album, All We Are Saying. There isn’t a single impeachable note on the disc; even the incurably maudlin and simple “Imagine” delights. On the other hand, what purpose does a disc of relatively faithful covers of John Lennon tunes serve? It’s not as if Lennon is an underappreciated figure.

Guitar in the Space Age keeps the trend going. The pitch: Frisell and Leisz tag-team great six-string showcases of their youth. The Chantays are here (“Pipeline”) along with their peppy younger brothers the Beach Boys (“Surfer Girl”). Duane Eddy comes by to run through “Rebel Rouser,” then it’s across the ocean for the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You.” As on the Lennon disc, many of the songs faithfully replicate the originals—perhaps too faithfully. Frisell picks out some sadly neglected classics, but there’s not much abstraction or deconstruction here; a version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” slavishly replicates all the bubble-gum jangle of the Byrds’ version. (Incredibly, Frisell’s version is even shorter than McGuinn and company’s.) Link Wray’s “Rumble” is rendered with carefully reproduced distortion.

That’s not to say there aren’t great moments. When Frisell and Leisz take off on the third bridge of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr locking on the backbeat, it’s sublime. By slowing down and spacing out “Pipeline,” Frisell gives it an eerily open, movie western sound. There are moments like that across the disc.

Overall, however, it’s a little too perfect for the NPR crowd: middle-aged, kinda eclectic, but not very adventurous. Perhaps unavoidably for a set so heavily geared to surf tunes, it also feels awfully white. Since the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut its first side, there has been a lively debate about white appropriation of black music and the ongoing blackness (or not) of the music. As jazz becomes increasingly academic—and, critics say, loses its ties to black culture—there’s been an especially heated round of this fight. The only track here originally recorded by a black musician is Junior Wells’s “Messin’ With the Kid,” and that feels a little uncomfortable. (But it is fun to hear Leisz, one of the world’s great sidemen, stepping out front with solos on the record, including a Steve Cropper-esque turn here.) Guitar might have benefited from the inclusion of, say, the Delfonics’s “La-La (Means I Love You),” which Frisell is known to play live.

Looking backward for inspiration isn’t always a dead end—though the “standards” record, where musicians just run through classic tunes, is often the dullest kind of jazz. The problem is that as with some of the more worn-out standards, the songs here don’t offer much possibility; a tune like the Tornados’ delightful proto-synth-pop kitsch “Telstar” simply can’t bend that much before it breaks, though Frisell takes it to that limit. Guitar suffers by comparison with the trumpeter Ron Miles’s new record, out on October 14, with a trio that includes Frisell and drummer Brian Blade—and, which, perhaps not coincidentally, includes Giuffre’s “Two Kinds of Blues.” Miles’s Circuit Rider doesn’t bear much resemblance to the popular idea of What Jazz Should Sound Like, and it borrows from country textures too, but the songs offer more space for harmonic expression.

Maybe all of this seems a little churlish. If a bunch of outrageously talented baby boomers get together to play old tunes, is that so terrible? There’s plenty of bad music out there; why object to the good? Why begrudge Frisell and his friends a trip down memory lane? Perhaps you can’t, in good faith. Still, it’s fair to predict that this isn’t going to go down as one of Frisell’s marquee records. The man can have his nostalgia, but please: Make some weird, jarring music sometime soon, too.