By John Ephland for DOWNBEAT
Every time you turn around, Frisell is doing something else that amazes with a level of creativity, burgeoning, wondrous spirit and incredible collaborative energy. Paul Motian, John Zorn, Marianne Faithfull, Don Byron and Kenny Wheeler all know him to be someone who can play what the need. Surf guitar. Lounge music. Dutiful, swinging passages that simply hint. Chet Atkins meets The Far Side. In-your-face racket: It's all Bill Frisell, electric and acoustic, and he gets my vote for best recorded output of the decade.
One could chart this marvel of a conundrum from his early years as a Denver garage band devotee, but what really concerns us here is the period leading up to and superceding the phenomenal band he begat sometime during the Marsalis Revolution of the mid '80s: namely, the one with fellow searchers Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron, bassist and drummer, respectively. All three were charting a course that, while not necessarily designed to be contrary to the resurgent jazz-trad movement, nonetheless helped forge a way out of the crazy-quilt of fusion gone inane, that walking corpse with a "kick me" sign foisted to its musical rump.
There was intelligence, imagination, pomp and circumstance, combined with a fresh artistry and passion not seen in a young generation since those so-called halcyon days of early fusion. In fact, it was this fertile soil, which included other collaborators along the way, that helped create the environment for Frisell to blossom.
"It wasn't until the mid '80s that I was able to commit to having my own band," Frisell confides in a phone conversation from his home in Seattle. "I connect that with my daughter being born in 1985. There were years and years of looking forward to that, her being born and the band being born at the same time. I had this feeling like I was growing up. And that was where, I guess, I gradually started gaining confidence in writing music.
"Every time, my music was linked with that band, with Joey and Kermit. [Cellist] Hank Roberts came later. They were wall so supportive when I had absolutely no confidence, to try my stuff and work on it."
Indeed, that band brought him into the 1990s. "We were best friends," Frisell continues. "The skill they all had as musicians, they had this huge range of expression, and could refer to just about anything. We all used the same language. Early on, the nature of the group was, we never figured out a set list. It was more the spirit of the moment that determined what we would play live." Frisell refers to a great set recorded for Gramavision, simply titled Live.
This band's rise to prominence in the '90s is documented on the recordings Before We Were Born (1989, with special guests like Julius Hemphill, Arto Lindsay and Billy Drewes), Where In The World? (1991), Have A Little Faith (1993, with Byron and Guy Klucevsek), This Land (1994, with Byron, Drewes, and Curtis Fowlkes), and culminating in what has to be their finest hour as a trio (minus the departed Roberts): two recordings of music for films of Buster Keaton, namely, Go West and The High Sign/One Week (both 1995). Along with Is That You? (1990, with Wayne Horvitz and Dave Hofstra, and no Kermit), these recordings indicated Frisell's sure hand on a new kind of musical synthesis, one that never let on where it was going.
"Not having a totally working band was traumatic, liberating and terrifying," says Frisell, referring to the original band's breakup. "Quartet (1996) featured Frisell's then-new band of violinist/tubaist Eyvind Kang, trumpeter Ron Miles and trombonist Fowlkes. "That first step away from the band with Joey," Frisell states, "I didn't want to have bass and drums in that band, 'cause I didn't want to think about them. I was more interested in different instruments. I wanted to experiment with sounds"
Quartet is a record rich with allusions to a mythic rural America, albeit with a decidedly bent perspective. Consider the first track, "Tales From The Far Side," with a nod to good friend and neighbor cartoonist Gary Larson.
From his new quartet it was just a hop, skip and a jump over to Nashville (1997), an album that, incredible as it may seem, won for best jazz album in DB's '98 Critics Poll despite its country base. Welcoming a whole new set of friends, and a few old ones, Frisell turned Opryland on its head. "Other than just liking that music, I hadn't studied it at all. It was another world to me," Frisell confesses. "It was one of the most dangerous moves, one of the biggest steps I ever took."
Apart from Songs We Know (1998), a quiet duet album of standards with pianist Fred Hersch, Frisell's most recent recordings include Gone, Just Like A Train (1998) and Good Dog, Happy Man (1999). Both deepened his connections with not noly bassist Viktor Krauss by drum legend Jim Keltner. Others dropping in included Ry Cooder and Horvitz, who, along with Lee Townsend, have been the guitarist's stalwart producers for every album he's made for Nonesuch Records. Both Gone and Dog enjoy a further blending of country, rock and dementia.
Another landmark for Frisell came with 1999's The Sweetest Punch, an album of Burt Bacharach/Elvis Costello music that Frisell orchestrated with aplomb. "Lately," Frisell concludes, "I've enjoyed playing with people who don't speak the same language. Actually, I enjoy not having just one band. It's not like I'm cheating on my wife, but sleeping around. I'm finding that really inspiring."