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Being Country 

Guitarist Bill Frisell and jazz's move away from the city

Wednesday, Mar 25 1998
A shy man with a goofy live presence -- he likes to haunt the back of the stage -- jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has an active, quirky sense of humor. He's written pieces such as "Rag" and "Tag," "Pip, Squeak," and a two-part tribute to Jimmy Carter. He mocks his own evasive manner with "Shucks," but he is not joking with the country music he's playing on his most recent Nonesuch disc, Gone, Just Like a Train.

The 47-year-old guitarist, who performs at the Masonic Auditorium this Sunday, grew up in Colorado surrounded, he has said, by country music -- and soul. As a young jazz purist, he tried to disdain the country. It didn't work for long. As early as his duet album Smash and Scatteration, recorded in 1984 with a pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid, one can hear a country plaintiveness in Frisell's sighing melodies. He dabbles with a bluegrass banjo; more frequently he plays chords that sag and wobble like the wistful lines of a dobro.

Even when he was playing with avant-garde musicians like Tim Berne and John Zorn, Frisell was often a colorist. After a tart saxophone solo, or sometimes even in accompaniment, he would saturate the texture of a piece, pouring sustained chords over the rhythm as if he was spreading oil paints on an outstretched canvas. It was the sound he seemed to care for as much as individual notes. Now it's the sound of country.

Frisell went to an integrated high school in Denver. At talent shows and at dances, he told a Down Beat interviewer, he'd play behind groups imitating the Temptations and James Brown. He was listening to blues, to Jimi Hendrix, and, on his own, imitating Wes Montgomery.

So was every other aspiring jazz guitarist in the late '60s: Montgomery's influence was pervasive. Montgomery could rip through fluent flurries of notes on uptempo pieces, play whole choruses of octaves, and then strum serenely as if he hadn't just blown away other guitarists with a virtuoso solo. Just as importantly, Montgomery had a knack for playing simple, catchy melodies. He was popular as well as astounding.

He wasn't Frisell's only influence. Frisell went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he met the emerging guitarist Pat Metheny, and later he took some lessons with Jim Hall, a master of a different stripe. Hall's understated explorations into harmonies -- his genial manner of evoking colors as well as discovering improvised melodies, of getting himself further from the tonal centers of the pieces he was playing and, like Hansel and Gretel, finding ingenious ways back -- were as enlightening to Frisell as the recordings of Wes Montgomery.

Frisell developed his own style in the late '70s and early '80s, years when he was recording with drummer Paul Motian and ECM artists Eberhard Weber and Arild Andersen. At times, he seemed to be going in two directions: toward a spacey, lyrical sound, tonally centered, like his own early ECM recordings; and toward using the guitar and the various synthesized sounds it can make in free, or near-free, settings. On those ECM records he seemed interested in creating coherent atmospheres; with Tim Berne, he offered contrast to harmonically challenging, angularly melodic music.

In recent times, he has maintained the colors he developed in those years while playing country standards such as the intriguingly titled "Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands." (He will, if you deserve it.) Sung by Robin Holcomb and featuring the banjo of Ron Block, this performance on Frisell's 1995 record Nashville sounds like hip contemporary country. Just as remarkable, and more distinctive, are Frisell's own compositions, such as the oddball waltz "Gone," with its slightly off-center melody. Nashville, a friend who hates country music confided in me, would get this quaintly melodic music out of Frisell's system. It hasn't happened.

Still, Gone, Just Like a Train, featuring bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jim Keltner, has more range than its predecessor. It begins with the sinister-sounding "Blues for Los Angeles." Krauss, who has worked with Lyle Lovett, plays a compulsively swaying two-note figure over Keltner's deliberately square backbeat. Frisell enters with some inconsequential single notes before playing a melody so gentle that it seems like some innocent who has fallen into bad company, a Little Red Riding Hood cavorting unawares in front of the wolf. The background remains fixed, although more intense, when Frisell starts his improvisations, in which he plays arching phrases up high, then adds distortion that he might have learned from a Hendrix.

He doesn't usually sound so threatening. The opening of the title tune is edgy, but it soon resolves into a rocking blues. There's some pathos on this new disc, as in "Lonesome," and some mystery, or at least tributes to mystery -- in "Sherlock Jr." That eerie number alternates unaccompanied improvisations by Frisell with sections that unfold over the rat-a-tat of a repeated roll on the drums.

Frisell's optimism pervades the rest of the disc, with its sentimental titles ("Lookout for Hope," and "Godson Song" and "The Wife and Kid"), its eccentric comedy ("Egg Radio"), and its unassuming good humor ("Pleased to Meet You"). "Verona" is a cheerful little melody that could be, before its bridge, a children's song. The innocence may surprise some fans. Jazz has always seemed an urban art, as intense as the cities in which it has been made. Maybe that's changing. Frisell's recent music reflects his background, and his wryly effervescent personality. Frisell seems pleased with everything these days: with his family, with his music, and with the country musicians he has been performing with. Still, Frisell has always been a restless, as well as a dedicated, musician. It's not clear how long he will be satisfied with the harmonic simplicity and melodic innocence of tunes such as "Egg Radio." For now, it's clear he's having fun playing country, and being country.

About The Author

Michael Ullman


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