THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
By Wayne Gabel
"I'm not a very verbal person," says Frisell, speaking by phone from Seattle ahead of a May 1 concert at Tokyo's Suntory Hall showcasing his new album, 'The Intercontinentals," released here April 9 by Nonesuch.
Verbal or not, not every bandleader can get a group of complete strangers to work in harmony, a feat that's even more difficult when the band members don't share a musical vocabulary or even a common language, as was the case with Frlsell's latest project, which brought together artists from four continents.
Rather than describe what he expected of them, which wasn't always an option, he simply gave his collaborators the ball and let them run.
"I didn't try to explain some conceptual thing," Frisell says. "The songs are really simple and open in a way that there was room for them all to give me their own take."
Conceived for a 2001 performance at Seattle's Earshot Festival, for which Frisell was asked to do "something completely out of the ordinary," the Intercontinentals was initially a vehicle for him to work with musicians who'd been on his wish list of jamming partners. Malian percussionist Sidiki Camara, Christos Govetas, a Greek Macedonian who plays oud and bouzouki, and Brazilian guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria. The group's rapport and rave reviews received prompted Frisell to expand the lineup to include violinist Jellny Scheinman and Greg Leisz, a slide and pedal steel guitarist, and head into the studio.
Though his recordings are often filed under jazz, Frisell's work inevitably gets labeled "Americana," a reference to the rootsy musical idioms that inform much of what he's done in recent years. He's drawn on bluegrass, blues and country to create something that is all of these things and none of them. Whether acoustic or electric, his is a spare sound devoid of flashy solos, one that's warm and even gentle.
'The title of his latest disc acknowledges he's moved beyond the borders of the United States in his search for new ideas, but "The Intercontinentals" has a familiar down-home feel. It's world music of sorts, but not at all foreign to those who've traveled with Frisell before.
"It wasn't a conscious decision," he says of the directions in which his diverse group of partners led him. "I thought I'd just throw them all together and see what happened. It was really kind of a haphazard experiment."
But it was one with a good chance of succeeding. Instincts honed while putting together countless trios, quartets and other combinations told him a chemistry was there.
"What first attracts me to a musician is the personal connection I feel. Sometimes I just know I can play with someone, even before I've heard them." FriselI explains. '"The real unknown was how they'd relate to each other."
As it turns out, they clicked. Though from different places, they find themselves on the same page on compositions by Govetas and Cantuaria, as well as songs by Brazil's Gilberto Gil and Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore, whom Frisell pays tribute to on the opening track, one of nine he wrote. Cultural and linguistic barriers quickly become irrelevant.
"When you close your eyes and start playing, so much of that stuff just melts away. That's what's so amazing about music," Frisell explains. "If everyone's open and the fear element isn't there, you don't have anything to worry about. It's when people get defensive or are afraid of each other that the walls come up." Despite Frisell's decidedly nonverbal approach to music, language does rear its head occasionally. Vocals, largely absent from his work, appear on several tracks.
"I'm just using all the resources that these guys have," he says. "It's a part of what they do, and I didn't want to shut that out."
The new direction, he adds, has provoked some unusual reactions when they play live.
"A couple of times we've had people dancing. That's nice, but it doesn't happen often." he says, laughing. At a typical concert, people are sitting there quietly trying to figure out what we're doing."
Whether his current direction is one he'll continue following is another matter. He has no intention of cutting back on new projects. As he gets on in years, 52-year-old FriseIl says he enjoys revisiting his past material, much of which, like this album, was created for a special group of people at a specific place and time. Hearing his music is like looking at a photo album.
"I think of all of the albums as a continuum," Frisell says. "Each one is just another step. They're like snapshots along the way."