The Phoenix Providence

By Jim Macnie

Many of us have embarrassing moments in our past, but when one of the hippest jazz dudes around admits to donning a leisure suit and playing in a show band, you prepare for a wince on the seismic level. Indeed, Bill Frisell scrunches up his face when recalling his performance at "a Holiday Inn kind of place" in Warwick in the late '70s but, after a second or two, a half-smile blossoms. The guitarist, one of jazz's most inventive improvisers, was a student in Boston at the time; another now-famous musician, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, was also part of the group. On the recommendation of bassist Kermit Driscoll, Frisell lightened some money woes by slipping into the band uniform (powder blue, we hope), and familiarizing himself with the highly charged emotions of Morris Albert's "Feelings."

"And lots of Donna Summer hits, too," the guitarist recently recalled during a chat in New York's Washington Square Park. "It was right when disco was starting. I remember on the second or third gig, Vinnie was bashing — he was really into Tony Williams at the time — and I started to mess around with different ideas. We were supposed to be playing it straight, but I was going all over the place. The bandleader gave me a big lecture — I almost lost the gig. I learned something there, though. I've always had some kind of itch to change things around."

That impulse has worked out well for Frisell, who brings his Beautiful Dreamers trio to the Narrows Center for the Arts on Saturday (and the Regattabar in Cambridge on Friday). Throughout the past three decades, the 60-year-old has fashioned the persona of a transfiguration man, a guy able to turn jazz, pop, and country chestnuts on their heads while sustaining — and often enhancing — their original beauty. From a luminous spin on Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" to a cello-flecked bounce through Monk's "Hackensack," he has made his mark on many a nugget.

You could hear it in the way he bent "Cluck Old Hen" and "Honeysuckle Rose" at a late spring performance at the Village Vanguard. Frisell is one of the few artists who is given the green light to book two consecutive weeks at the historic NYC jazz club, and Beautiful Dreamers, featuring violist Eyvand Kang and drummer Rudy Royston, proved to the audience just how pliable his approach truly is. A demure pluck here, a scalding shriek there — the guitarist often plots his solos using shards of ideas that are eventually meshed into a fluid statement.

On last year's Beautiful Dreamer (Savoy), the band shows how effective the process is by turning Little Anthony & the Imperials' "Goin' Out of My Head" into a fractured minuet that steadily picks up steam until it becomes the hippest piece of muzak ever — a blend of wit and sentiment. Something similar happened when Frisell appeared with saxophonist Lee Konitz's quartet at the start of June at New York's Blue Note club, breaking the melodic elements of "All the Things You Are" into kaleidoscopic fragments and then piecing them back together. It's an engaging way to work because it makes a tacit demand of the audience: Follow along for a bit and see where this leads.

Frisell says that in some ways, it's born of his limitations. "I often hear this thing in my head that I can't fully articulate, but I'll try to imply as much as I can of it. Like, the sound of a huge orchestra could turn into a single chord."

In the last few years, modern jazz has widened its parameters to include pieces by everyone from Radiohead to Rufus Wainwright. Many of these choices take their cues from a groundbreaking Frisell disc from the mid-'90s, Have a Little Faith. It's there that the guitarist initially addressed several of his whims on a single program, stacking Madonna next to Sousa next to Muddy Waters next to John Hiatt. He says there was a definite feeling of liberation while sculpting the album.

Beautiful Dreamer (and, indeed, several of his records) furthers that broad perspective. It's not often you find Benny Goodman tunes working in cahoots with Carter Family staples, but Frisell's purview accounts for each with equal weight. And there's no nudging or winking in the air when Stephen Foster's title tune or "Tea For Two" gets the trio's treatment. The guitarist is usually looking for poignancy or frolic.

"I don't want anyone to think I'm making fun of those tunes," he says. "It's just that I'm now really comfortable with stuff that I thought was a little corny years ago. Being a jazz guy and having to be super-hip . . . man, it takes years to shake that off and just be honest. I knew I had to be true to the music I really loved, like letting the Beatles be in there. There's no denying it: I love Burt Bacharach, and lots of other stuff from my childhood.

"When I lived in Colorado I took lessons from Johnny Smith. At the time I wanted to be the cool junkie bebop guy, and to some degree I thought he was a bit schmaltzy. Now that I'm older, it's like, 'Oh boy, if I could only go back and pay more attention to what he was teaching me.' He was doing stuff 60 years ago I'm just barely starting to understand now. And he was even doing tunes I'm into, like 'Shenandoah.' I didn't understand it all back then."

Waxing quaint has become a Frisell forte. Absorbing and interpreting everything from "Pretty Polly" to "You Are My Sunshine" to "A Change Is Gonna Come," he has shined a spotlight on the dreamy side of an essentially American sound, a place where Aaron Copland and Hank Williams coincide. Even when it's aggressive, this music teems with grace, and maybe a bit of deception.

The string quartet material on the recent Sign of Life (Savoy) seems simple; indeed, "Friend of Mine" has the feel of an old-fashioned parlor waltz. But by the time violinist Jenny Scheinman starts to head for the hills, it becomes obvious Frisell has written lots of elbow room into the tune. It's not a ruse exactly, but you could call it a neat trick. DownBeat magazine recently deemed the album "sneakily substantive."

This kind of chemistry drives Frisell's artistic impact. These days he plots a course that allows him to stress melody while wading into some keen interplay. But he says there are miles to go before he gets everything right. The Dreamers have been attempting John Coltrane's rather intricate "26-20" at many of their recent gigs, but it always turns out a bit shy of what they want it to be.

"It's one of those tunes I don't know if I'll ever fully get," he concludes. "When I first heard it years ago, it was like, 'Whoa, this is impossible.' Then I got brave and tried it out. We're close, so we keep pounding away at it."

Who knows — if they find the eloquence they're searching for with that one, perhaps they can apply themselves toward enhancing the stature of "Feelings," putting Morris Albert up there with Bacharach. Powder blue leisure suits optional, of course.