By Gary Giddens
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GUITAR HERO: Bill Frisell's infinite styles
Frisell at the Blue Note, January 7, 2009 Photograph by Danny Clinch
The fearless and adaptable guitarist Bill Frisell, whose varied endeavors have drawn him into free-form extemporizations, symphonic collaborations, hard and soft rock, country, and accompaniments for Buster Keaton silent films, is primarily associated with two of jazz’s border towns, each of which he helped put on the map. The first might be called Jazz Americana, and Frisell is at home there thanks to his uncanny knack for writing music that sounds a lot older than his fifty-seven years. “History, Mystery” (Nonesuch), one of two recently released disks, features standard jazz instrumentation augmented by strings, and suggests a carrousel ride from which the view is blurrily familiar. Much of the album is in waltz time, including one of three versions of an older Frisell composition, “Monroe” (as in Bill, the father of bluegrass). Another version of “Monroe,” for guitar and cello, sounds a bit like the kind of tune Ken Burns might cue for the aftermath of Antietam.
But as one listens it becomes clear that there is something else going on. The mood of nostalgic pastiche is repeatedly broken—by two knotty jazz classics, Lee Konitz’s “Sub-Conscious Lee” and Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” and by some quizzical micro-compositions, some less than forty seconds long, which Frisell sprinkles through the album, with names like “Question,” “Answer,” and “A Momentary Suspension of Doubt.” Such moments are telegrams from Frisell’s other border-town residence, which we might call Minefield America, a forbidding territory of ascetic, chesslike improvisations—multidirectional interactions in which every note counts, every modulation is eventful, and intense concentration is a prerequisite for player and listener alike. Monk is the patron saint of this kind of playing; even his simplest-sounding themes were often fraught with structural and harmonic snares. As John Coltrane memorably recalled, “If you didn’t keep aware all the time of what was going on, you’d suddenly feel as if you’d stepped into an empty elevator shaft.”
Frisell has made many recordings in this vein, and, given his interest in jazz traditions, it’s fitting that he has often undertaken these explorations with players a generation older. A few months after “History, Mystery” came the release of “Jim Hall & Bill Frisell: Hemispheres” (ArtistShare), in which Frisell duets with his former teacher, who has long since graduated to living-legend status. And the other week, at the Blue Note, he appeared with the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Paul Motian—alumni of Miles Davis and Bill Evans groups, respectively—in a set that retooled the repertory, and rekindled the charm, of an album that the trio made in 2006. Frisell’s work with musicians he grew up admiring reveals contradictory impulses. As an instrumentalist, he has enormous ambition, and is devoted to the idea that the guitar can be orchestral in reach. Manipulating his sound with an array of digital effects, to produce real-time ostinato loops or to simulate the delicate chimes of a celesta, he creates expansive, echoing canvases for his collaborators to work on. But, as a guy on the bandstand, he is deferential, perpetually stuck in the mode of an eager youngster—the boy who grew up in Denver playing clarinet and guitar, and haunted Walgreens to buy every record he could afford.
Frisell’s diffidence may have been enforced by a long apprenticeship. Born in 1951, he didn’t gain a foothold in jazz until the late seventies, when he became a session guitarist for the ECM label. During the next decade, he became a Zelig figure, a quiet, bespectacled, but musically charged presence on every kind of session, absorbing the styles of Motian, Joey Baron, Julius Hemphill, John Zorn, Joe Lovano, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Tim Berne, John Scofield, Don Byron, Dave Holland, and other players who have little in common beyond their conspicuous individualism. His style—a confident, spare attack that suggests both modesty and calculation—reflects his appreciation of Hall, Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, and Jimi Hendrix. Though he has said that he considers himself a jazz guitarist in everything he does, his capacious embrace of other precincts in American music has led him to find similarities that had generally escaped notice. In Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” he hears chord changes similar to those in Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” He interpolates Monk’s “Misterioso” in “You Are My Sunshine,” and vice versa. And, at a time when guitarists routinely customize their gear to refine a signature sound, Frisell stays with the Fender Telecaster, the oldest mass-produced solid-body guitar, with its deep history in country, blues, and early rock.
At the Blue Note, the trio opened with “You Are My Sunshine.” Frisell engaged Carter’s bass in short melodic exchanges, while Motian pattered around the drums, punctuating each fragment like an editor tidying up a manuscript. Things opened up a little with Carter’s “Eighty-One,” a blues he had written for Miles Davis’s “E.S.P.” (The piece is a classic of Minefield America, famous for its open terrain between notes.) But here, and in a couple of Motian compositions that followed, the stop-start patterns, controlled and austere, suggested the diminished emotional vitality that can occur when performers subordinate their egos in a musical non-aggression pact. That all changed during “Strange Meeting,” perhaps Frisell’s best-known tune and another musical minefield, with unusually static harmonies and an irregular structure featuring an elongated bridge section. In this landscape, Carter quietly declared his eminence with smooth virtuosity and an implacable four-beat walk that, far from raising the nominal leader’s hackles, pleased him so much that he essentially put the rest of the set in Carter’s hands. A version of Carter’s “Little Waltz” evolved into a bass concerto, buoyant with twinkling harmonics, sliding pitches (Carter likes to play with the pegs), and double-, triple-, and quadruple-stopped chords. As Carter played, Frisell reverted to the role of sideman. Indeed, there were times, as he nodded and smiled in response to the nuances of Carter’s improvisation, when he strongly resembled a middle-aged jazz fan enjoying every beat of a Ron Carter solo.
You can hear a similar dynamic at work in “Hemispheres,” Frisell’s new album with Jim Hall. The setting is informal—small extraneous noises betray the fact that the recording took place at the home of a musician friend—and the repertory, played in duet or joined by bass and drums, is eclectic. Along with numbers by Hall and Frisell, there are blues and standards (including Hall’s major-minor key arrangement of “My Funny Valentine,” first recorded as a duet with Bill Evans) and a dramatic rendering of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” There is a palpable sense of Frisell’s delight at being in the company of a man who is not only his teacher and mentor but also a heroic stylist, capable of announcing his presence with a single note. Indeed, one such note is a highlight of the album. It occurs four and a half minutes into a lengthy free improvisation called “Migration.” Up to that point, Frisell has been offering loops and chords and riffs, trying to create a sonic background that will engage his partner’s interest, as Hall sits silently by. Suddenly, a lone commanding note signals Hall’s entrance, and you can practically see Frisell smiling with relief. A few minutes later, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what.