Post Modern Americana - Bill Frisell digs into his roots
Bill Frisell has slowly carved himself a unique place in the music world. The jagged melodies and strident harmonies of his early recordings - such as Lookout for Hope and Before We Were Born - posited him as a brainy, perhaps over-thinking guitarist. But over the past ten years, the cerebral veneer has worn away to reveal a folksy side of Frisell's musicality. On his latest album, Good Dog, Happy Man [Nonesuch], his discordant intervallic structures have, for the most part, been replaced by open G and D chords. His compositions - formerly dense and complex - now have the simple quality of folk songs, and his primal-scream solos have been traded for brief stanzas of wordless poetry.
In addition, Frisell has broken with the prototypical jazz formula of intro-melody-solos-melody-outro. The us on Good Dog, Happy Man ebbs and flows - each of the project's five musicians (Frisell, steel guitarist Greg Leisz, organist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Viktor Krauss, and drummer Jim Keltner) come into the foreground for brief, beautifully placed moments, then fade back into a lush ocean of sound. Although Frisell hasn't taken up signing, his role in the ensemble is very much like that of a singer in a folk or R&B band. Each line he delivers is supported by the other players - Leisz's shadings and harmonizations of Frisell's melodies, and Horvitz's Hammond organ punctuations are particularly noteworthy - and the gleeful interplay gives the proceedings a very homespun, front-porch vibe.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS
"The Sweetest Punch featured a large instrumental ensemble, and I really obsessed over every single note of the arrangements," Frisell says. "When it came time to do Good Dog, Happy Man, I wanted rougher ideas. We didn't talk about the arrangements, and I never said, 'Okay, you play a solo here.' We would start a tune, and everybody would just play."
The result is music that has a natural shape to it. Gratuitous solos are never forced in to the venter of the music, and, in that sense, much of the music on Good Dog, Happy Man is, for lack of a better word, uneventful. (Imagine Booker T. & The MGs as produced by Daniel Lanois or Brian Eno and you'll get the idea.) "The music is not exactly repetitious," Frisell explains, "but we do stay in areas for a long time where everyone is getting off on the sound of all the instruments together.
DIGGING UP ROOTS
"It's weird, exciting time for me," he continues. "I'm definitely moving away from the postmodern jazz direction I followed for years, but I don't really know where I'm going. I do know the older I get, the more I'm referencing music I heard as a kid. I'm hearing vague, dream-like references to the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield - and although I didn't know it back in my youth, they were coming from roots music. Bob Dylan was hooked into all that old stuff, too. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? There's pedal steel all over the place!"
LEISZ IS MORE
"Greg had the night off," Frisell recalls, "and he came to our show. He and I talked, but I had never heard him play. Well, actually, I didn't realize how much I'd heard him - he's on so many records, it seemed that every time I bought an album, he was on it!"
Frisell says that Leisz's in-the-pocket playing on k.d. lang's Absolute Torch and Twang, Ingenue, and Drag, and his expressive work on Peter Case's Full Service No Waiting hooked him into Leisz's remarkable musicality. "What's so cool about playing with Greg is that his whole sensibility is coming from playing with singers," says Frisell. "He knows instinctively what to do to make a singer sound good, and being a soloist, I've always tried to think like I'm the 'singer' of whatever group I'm in."
Ry had a recording of Johnny Smith playing 'Shenandoah' that he was excited about," says Frisell," and he sent me a message about how Johnny Smith is this great, unsung guitarist. I think that was my real 'in' with Ry, because I studied with Smith in 1970. So I sent a message to Ry saying, 'Yeah, great. I know Johnny Smith!" That must have done the trick, as Cooder suggested they record "Shenandoah" before he had even played with Frisell.
AND FOR MY NEXT TRICK ..
Frisell prepared for his solo-guitar recording by playing a few concerts before the recording sessions. Fleshing out music onstage before hitting the studio is a time-tested methodology for getting more familiar with the material and working out potential kinks, but the approach backfired on Frisell.
"During the concerts, I got really loose and comfortable, and I wasn't really conscious of when there was a n electronic buzz or something," he says. "But when I got in the studio, I freaked out. The first day, I couldn't even play. Every little movement bugged me - 'Oh no, my shirt is rubbing against the guitar! I've had problems like that with bands, too. You do gigs and everyone feels loose, then you go into the studio - where you're under the microscope - and everybody clams up. It takes a while to get comfortable with that environment."
The solo record was recorded over five days - more time than Frisell usually spends in the studio for his full-band albums. "A lot of my records are done in two or three days, so that was pretty luxurious," he says. "Of course, the first day I didn't do anything because I was flipping out. On the last day, I finally felt like I had got enough of the planned material on tape, and the pressure I had put on myself was off. As a result, I was able to record a whole bunch of free jams at the final session - just making stuff up on the spot."
"No matter what I'm doing," he says, "it's always the next step toward this thing floating out there that I'm not quite getting. That's what keeps me going. Good Dog, Happy Man may be the realization of something I was trying to hear ten years ago. Hopefully, I've brought something that was a dream into reality. But no matter what I do, there's always a bit of 'I wish I had done this,' or 'If I could only do that.' You can never figure it out completely, and it would be weird if you ever did. Then there wouldn't be any more reason to play."