JAZZ ALBUM OF THE
BILL FRISELL's Nashville
Who would've guessed that Down Beat's Jazz Album of the Year award would go to Bill Frisell for Nashville, a brilliant jazz-meets-bluegrass outing the guitarist recorded in the country capitol with a supporting cast composed of roots music's top session men. Arguably Down Beat's most unlikely album victor in recent years, Nashville challenges the notion that creative improvisational music is restricted to the blues-and-swing zone. It may not have offered what most jazz fans expect, but Nashville certainly gave jazz critics what they liked: innovative, adventurous music that stretches the boundaries of jazz.
In scoring with the plurality of votes for best album (eligible CDs had release dates between April 15, 1997, and April 15, 1998), Frisell outdistanced a full field of noteworthies including T.S. Monk (his compelling Monk On Monk tribute to his dad, Thelonious), Bill Holman (who also celebrated Monk with his singular arrangements for big band on Brilliant Corners) and Roy Hargrove (his fiery Habana Afro- Cuban outing with his ensemble Crisol) . Nashville also beat out a sumptuous feast of dual-leader projects, including Jacky Terrasson and Cassandra Wilson's Rendezvous, Ornette Coleman and Joachim Kuhn's Colors, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter's 1+1, and Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton's self-titled trumpet summit. Nashville even bettered Wynton Marsalis' Blood On The Fields, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
A musical omnivore who has shyly defied jazz tradition and boldly crossed stylistic borders throughout his career, Frisell set up an intriguing confluence of two distinctly American styles of music on Nashville: jazz and country. In doing so, he created a rootsy hybrid that scribes assigned several names: Americana jazz, heartland jazz, Appalachian jazz and, in the assessment of one critic, "covered wagon jazz."
Frisell, who also received the most votes in the Guitar category, says that he was caught off guard when informed that Nashville topped the Down Beat chart. "Ifs kind of a shock," he says. "It surprises me because the album is, how should I say it, I guess ifs a little off the edge from what jazz is supposed to be." When asked if he was aware of how popular Nashville had been with the critics, he admits that he reads his press. "Most of the responses were positive, although I did get some negative comments by people here in Seattle. In fact, for a couple weeks people were writing in to the local newspaper and saying that I had sold out, that I had jumped on the country bandwagon to sell lots of records. Some of what was said was even kind of mean, like I should move to Las Vegas."
Frisell laughs at the suggestion that he was trying to rake in the dough. "They don't understand. They thought I was playing it safe. In reality, Nashville was one of the most dangerous records I've made. I jumped into uncharted territory, working with people I had never met and playing a style I had never dealt with before. The biggest challenge was writing tunes without knowing a thing about the musical vocabulary."
One of the misconceptions about Frisell, who oftentimes alludes to country in his eclectic style (especially in his pedal steel-like improvisations), is that he's well-versed in the genre. In fact, he says his country influences came from listening to country-inflected pop music by the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He also says that Nashville wasn't any- thing new to the jazz world. "Gary Burton went to Nashville to record his Tennessee Firebird country -jazz album, and early in his career Sonny Rollins recorded an incredible album, Way Out West where he did jazz takes on cowboy songs like 'I'm An Old Cow Hand.' He even appeared on the LP cover wearing a cowboy hat."
As for working with country musicians, Frisell notes a major difference from his typical jazz recording sessions: "Usually with my quartet, I write out my compositions. We start by reading the charts and then take a tune into different directions as we get familiar with playing it together. But I didn't present the music that way to the guys in Nashville. It was more of a challenge for me. I played the tunes and they all just reacted. It was exciting to see how quickly they learned the pieces." One of several key figures in the Nashville sessions was bluegrass dobro maestro Jerry Douglas. "Jerry pushed the entire album over the top for me," Frisell says. "I knew him from some of his records, but I had never met him, so I was nervous. He was great. He just reacted to what I was playing." Case in point: the angular blues number "We're Not From Around Here." Frisell begins the piece by playing a simple bass line then throws a curve at the end with a jazzy melody that has, in his own words, "odd chromatic parts." He says, " I told Jerry about this lower harmony line I had in mind for the melody, and he offered to play it. Well, he got it immediately, which amazed me. I remember thinking, This guy is a heavy musician. He didn't have to read anything. He just heard it. If I were put in the same situation, I'd be in deep trouble."
Frisell's admiration for Douglas is reciprocated by the dobro player, who says the Nashville sessions proved to be one of his most relaxed studio experiences. "It was so easy working with Bill," Douglas says. "He was such a teddy bear. The music was so tuneful and do open to improvisation. Country music and jazz are a lot more compatible than people realize." Even though he's attracted to exploring all kinds of jazz styles, Frisell says jazz is at the core of his music. "Deep in my hear, no matter what anyone calls it, no matter what the rules are, I approach my music from a jazz sensibility. My inspiration comes from all over the map, but it's guys like Monk, Miles and Sonny Rollins that I continue to be obsessed with in terms of trying to figure out their thought processes when they recorded. There's still so much more for me to learn. It's never-ending."
Ultimately it's Frisell's musical wanderlust that makes Nashville the perfect choice for Down Beat's Jazz Album of the Year. Instead of recycling jazz's past, Firsell's work of art stands as an auspicious signpost that jazz in its extemporaneous glory will continue to evolve in unexpected and imaginative ways. Critics are constantly inundated with piles and piles of plastic jewel boxes, the majority housing music that treads tired and predictable ground. Frisell's Nashville is a rarity: a pure delight of catchy, inventive, improvisationally rich music that demonstrates how pliable and all-inclusive jazz truly is.