By John Ephland
"It was a random thing," Frisell says. "I chose people who I recently met and stuck them together to see what happens."
A rather nonchalant attitude for assembling a band with seemingly expansive, lofty goals; and one that is developing as a genuinely Frisellian musical juggernaut.
"It was part of something big: one guy from Mali, me from Brazil, another guy from Greece," says guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, a member of The Intercontinentals. "It was the four of us playing new music that goes all over the place."
The Intercontinentals looks like Frisell' s attempt to move away from the country and Americana explorations that have been his focus in recent years; or at least to reinvent a country sound using material and musicians from other countries, as well as several regular American collaborators. The band's new eponymous Nonesuch album sounds like a 14-track travelogue that puts Appalachia in the heart of the Balkans, when its not somewhere like Mali or Brazil. All the while subtle electronic dashes keep the music on the edge of becoming a crazy-quilt country of the imagination. And yet, as slide and steel guitarist Greg Leisz says, the songs "aren't interpretative works, but original music of whole other cultures, from people off four continents."
The Intercontinentals - formed in 2001 and debuting at Seattle's Earshot Jazz Festival - is more of the Frisell we've come to know, only different. The meridians are similar, the shifting center of gravity familiar. Along with Leisz, producer Lee Townsend is back, and regular Frisell collaborator violinist Jenny Scheinman is in the fray. But the group gets its name from three other players: Cantuaria, Greek/Macedonian oudist/bouzoukist/singer Christos Govetas and Malian percussionist/singer Sidiki Camara.
Given Frisell's love of everything musical, it should come as no surprise that chance encounters had everything to do with forming The Intercontinentals. Such was the case when he recently played with Mali's Boubacar Traore and Camara, a couple of Mali's most celebrated musicians. Their work together planted seeds, giving Frisell the desire to make even more connections between the roots music of Mali and America.
"Boubacar is the Elvis of Mali, an important musician," Frisell says. 'The first time I heard him I was sitting across from him at a dinner, where he played. I was so taken with his music that I followed him around, hung out with him. He eventually taught me. I spent a lot of time trying to learn his music. He was like a key opening up this door. I also connected with Sidiki at that dinner; he and I were playing together - he played with some sticks. It was like hillbilly music meets African music."
Akin to the album that preceded it - the bluegrass/country blues-infused The Willies - The lntercontinentals displays simpatico texture, mood and attitude between the musicians. This emerges, perhaps, from Frisell's methods for recording the projects. "Sidiki, Christos and Vinicius are all guys who I wanted to play with," he says. "It felt good when we all got together. I could play with them individually, but I wasn't sure what would happen when I put them all together. More and more, the people I play with, I don't want to talk about anything. Now, it's just let's play together. I let whatever people do happen, let the song guide, or my playing or each other's playing guide. I still don't know how close we got to that."
"It's not only music, but a spiritual thing, different musics in the world," Cantuaria says. "With this music, it's easy if you get these guys together and start playing. But it's something more than only music, more of the heart and the mind. Sidiki is the most unique guy in the band. He's a screwball guy, it's like a religion with him. His playing creates a great drive in the band."
"Bill always seems to be exploring new ground," says Leisz, who first met and worked with Frisell in 1998. 'This seems like a natural progression in his own career in terms of seeking interaction with the musical universe.
"Sometimes, he puts a project together conceptually and goes into the studio. This time, he put a group together to play, and once he saw how the group would go, he expanded on the original concept I didn't hear anything before we went into the studio. I was surprised that he put me into that mix, based on the Americana things we've done in the past. He's not moving into world music. It's more like he's gotten off the continent."
"I would never imagine such a combination of musicians in one room," agrees fellow Seattle resident Christos, "and I have worked with a variety of musicians from around the world. Bill and I met in a music store in Seattle, Dusty Strings, where I fell in love with an oud. I was there every week playing this particular instrument, fantasizing. People got sick and tired of my playing."
But not Frisell, who Christos says approached him and asked him if he'd be interested in exchanging some music. "I was familiar with his work from the '80s," Christos says. "It was a shock for me. He didn't know of me. We got together at his house, fleshing things out. I never met these other guys before the concert, until the Earshot Jazz Festival rehearsal, the day before. It was hot. It took two rehearsals, and all of the ice that there was to melt was already gone."
Echoing the perception that everyone else involved shared, Christos says playing involved little verbal communication. "A musical theme would be composed, a part to play. And then we would just go at it."
"What made it hard was also what made it great," says violinist Scheinman. "I always recorded last, and so my start time was somewhere around midnight every night, or sometimes later; so, we were often quite delirious. But I got to hear the songs at near completion and add the final spice, and I also got the magic of a studio late at night when the preoccupations with lunch break and the allure of the basketball court have faded into true music time.
"A fun moment for me was recording the solo on 'Boubacar,"' Scheinman continues. "It was a one-take inspiration played in the wee hours of the last night, and I felt like I was channeling something. Bill says it sounds like Lester Young. I think it has a little Stuff Smith in it."
While the album is light on actual solos, The Intercontinentals "is all about improvisation," according to Christos, who normally plays traditional Greek folk music. "This music is about being receptive and responding to the color that comes at you."
For Frisell, it was about letting the music have a life of its own, and not just each individual's music coming forth. "All during the process of getting this band together, I was spending a lot of time with Boubacar's music," he says. "We actually played some of his music, and kind of ripped it off with 'Boubacar.' Once I found the key to unlock the mysteries to his music, and actually starting to play technically on the guitar what he plays, that led to the creation of some of the songs on the album."
Discussing Traore's approach and the influence that pervades this band's music, Frisell says, "He'll play a lot of octaves, but not in a bebop kind of way, like Wes Montgomery. It's in a more open-position chords way. A lot of the melodies he's playing in octaves with one note ringing into another like a rich, harp-like sound. The notes are all ringing together with overtones. When we would play a song in duet at my house, if I was going to solo on a song, he would say, 'You can play anything you want but you have to end on a strong beat or the root note of the phrase together. With 'Boubacar,' the melody from that is paraphrasing one of his songs."
In fact, "Boubacar" opens the album as kind of solemn, slow-grinding mixture of Wild West menace with a transatlantic feel.
"Some of the songs are more guitar-based, where other songs come from melodies I came up with and then applied to the guitar," Frisell says of the album. The former approach is more obvious on more traditional-sounding pieces like Traore's sunny, dronish "Baba Drame" and the traditional modal tune 'The Young Monk."
As for his less-than-Catholic tastes, Frisell says, "I don't really hear a division between country music and blues music and African music and white and black. Somehow I have always felt that it is coming from the same place."
Referring to one of those fertile rehearsal passages that led to the creation of The Intercontinentals, he adds, "We couldn't speak the same languages, but I'm playing 'Wildwood Flower,' a Carter Family song, and Sidiki's playing a Malian beat, and he ends up writing words to that very song. It's that back-and-forth cross-pollination between two musical worlds. I love those musical moments that defy all categorization."