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"
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.