THE PHILADELPHIA ENQUIRER
By Tom Moon
Of all the dialects running through Western popular music, one of the most widely understood is the language of the guitar.
Anyone who listens to the radio is familiar with the power-chord crunch, or the pitch-bending blues wail, or the weepy sigh of the pedal steel. We know what the guitar is saying without really listening. We hear the notes and instantly get what they stand for - whether it's an expression of anger coming through gales of feedback, or the sound of lives gunning down fast lanes, or the calm contemplation that comes from chords strummed reassuringly on downbeats.
Naturally, such a vernacular has its own cliches: Any old gutbucket flatted third can convey a blue mood, and a convincing rock-and-roll roar requires only those three trusty chords. Even Alanis Morissette might appreciate the irony: The instrument relied upon by thousands as a path to creative individuality is the one loaded with the most glib shorthand - stock chords and licks and other assorted generica that has been recycled until it's nearly meaningless.
Which is why Bill Frisell, the guitarist and composer who will bring his New Quartet to the Theatre of Living Arts on Nov. 1, looms as such an important voice.
For more than a decade, Frisell has quietly fashioned a parallel guitar reality. It's a realm built on understatement, and stocked with the kind of groaning, keening sounds that ordinary guitars don't make. It's music that bends the hack guitar syntax to serve lofty compositional ambitions, and in the process transforms the shopworn riffage of six-string sharpshooters into profound, disarmingly pure music.
Frisell know, and uses, the tricks of the trade - only not in expected ways. His notes don't have finite starts and stops - they float, cloudlike, through the music, sometimes enveloping it. His phrases are a mix of ordinary guitar-lesson stuff and skronky dissonances that rise out of nowhere, to demonize perfectly normal settings. When he lands on an idea he considers worth developing, he bores into it incessantly, stinging like an insect consumed by bloodlust. He slides and bends pitches as though careening around a racetrack. Hid downtempo pieces, which are beautifully plainspoken, suggest placid cornfields in fading light, or the muffled words of old-timers remembering when. In his hands, the guitar can be a buzz saw with a rusty blade, or a surgical needle, or a child laughing.
This daunting range of expression has helped establish Frisell, 48, as a revered figure among musicians - like Miles Davis and few others, his is a signature built from pure sound and inflection, an anti-technique that, to those who've heard him, is instantly identifiable. Which is one of the paradoxes about Frisell: He's known to virtually everyone who pays attention to improvised music, and still semi-obscure outside of it. His recordings consistently earn critical raves, but a better measure of his impact is in the way he's studied. His works are pored over, note for note, by guitarists and non-guitarists alike, his compositions dissected by artists working in all kinds of genres.
Here's why: By arguing for the importance of melodies, and seeking unconventional ways to develop them, Frisell has managed a subversive reordering of priorities, a whispered counterpoint to the look-at-me shouts of jazz's young lions.
And that's just in jazz. Frisell began recording in the early '80s, after a stint at Boston's Berklee music school and apprenticeships with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Since those early recordings, which glory in contrasts between reflecting-pool clarity and echoey-canyon reverb, the guitarist has gingerly moved away from the rigid ideologies and structures of jazz, to incorporate elements of contemporary classical music and Appalachian folk song, among others. He's developed a vocabulary that begins with bebop, but he's no purist: He's just as attached to country blues and kitschy rock, and willing to follow a whim down some unexpected alley.
In his 16-album career, he's done cartoonish silent-film scores and category-defying improvisation (with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Paul Motian, a triumvirate that ranks among the most incendiary ensembles of the post-fusion era), written fantasias that suggest the sweep of Aaron Copland, and reworked John Hiatt pop tunes.
And though some of these expeditions have been on the sedate side, they're never boring. Even when Frisell knows the terrain, he approaches it the way a first-time tourist would, eager to explore treasure but not sure where to begin. As he pokes around, he regrades the playing field - stripping away the aggrandizing postures that come as second nature to so many guitarists, eliminating the technical effluvia to savor the essence.
The result is music that is thoughtful and succinct, full of possibility but never overrun with raw data. Frisell wants the telling inflection rather than the dense proclamation; he'd rather develop one significant idea than babble through a dozen easy ones. It's possible to hear, in his detailed and pointillistic music, a constant winnowing process. As he works to reduce the big theme to its basic truth, he'll state it again, each time placing the idea in a different light. His best compositions are riddled with juxtapositions great and small: nursery-rhyme simple melodies are framed by creeping chromatic harmonies, and the earnest folk blues is reimagined with buzzing fuzz-tone guitars.
This is exactly what he's done with every style he has visited. Frisell's notion of a rock power trio, heard on 1997's Gone, Just Like a Train, is the sound of a loose, wind-blown music tethered to an unforgiving and ironclad beat. His approach to jazz improvisation, evident in his work with Lovano and Motian rather than his own conceptual recordings, insists on more melody than most jam-session snobs might think prudent. When he looked at the tried-and-true templates of country song, on the 1995 Nashville, Frisell arrived at a series of stark, pensive landscapes.
The amazing thing about his unusual sonic signature - the stark openness, the contrasts, the lusty wails that interrupt quiet conversations - is how it seems to suit just about any atmosphere. During the making of Painted From Memory, Elvis Costello's 1998 album-length collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Costello asked Frisell to assemble an all-star group that would generate alternate interpretations of the songs. These have Frisell's effortless liquidity even when the guitar is absent: On The Sweetest Punch, to be released Sept. 21, some Costello/Bacharach gems are recast as if they were jazz standards, others are dragged through the dirt until they're completely re-harmonized. All derive their cohesion from Frisell's poised, buoyant, inner-directed presence.
That poise, in evidence on all of Frisell's recordings, is inescapable in live performance. Where his compositional mind focuses on ordering things and finding unusual connections, his work as a player is less guarded, and less linear. He's anything but pushy, patient in a prey-stalking way. Some nights, his brief solos arrive like internal dialogs, observations and discussions intended for a journal, not the outside world. At the same time, Frisell is prone to outlandish lunges and extravagant yowls, and when provoked can be savage, or harsh, or brutally terse. And thought it sometimes sounds as if he's groping for the next note, even the most impulsive, last-minute musings spring from his fingers fully formed.
The live setting is the best way to appreciate the interconnectedness of Frisell's art - the way his odd-ball guitar groans become essential components of the scenes he's conjuring, the way the slightest change of emphasis can send a phrase, and an entire piece, into a different orbit. Unlike many of his peers, Frisell understands the hints and allegations that tie everything back to an original theme. A master of texture, he's constantly shifting the roles of melody and counterpoint seizing unexpected clusters of harmony, juggling the instrumentation of his band to reflect his current arranging curiosities. (He treats even decades-old compositions as repertory material, dusting off cherished originals and changing the slopes of their melodies with each new ensemble; one of his most revamped pieces, "Lookout for Hope," was first recorded in 1987.)
More than that, though, live performance offers the chance to fully apprehend the ways the taciturn Frisell makes the guitar talk - in woeful moans and pristine plucked notes that exhibit their own personality quirks, in music that starts with the same glib licks loved by millions and somehow wrings enduring, universal truths from them.