BILL FRISELL'S AMERICA
The grimly determined faces of rural, post-Depression America loom and fade in the darkened space. Seated onstage between a pair of screens on which the vintage images are projected, guitarist Bill Frisell, steel guitarist Greg Leisz and violinist Jenny Scheinman fashion an appropriately stark yet hopeful soundtrack at the Wexner Art Center in Columbus, Ohio, melding jazz and Americana in a way that seems as natural as breathing.
If ever there was an assignment tailor-made for Frisell's singular approach, the Disfarmer Project is it. Commissioned by the Wexner Center, with which Frisell has enjoyed a long working relationship, the emotionally nuanced and era-evocative music was inspired by black-and-white portraits taken by photographer Mike Meyers, a.k.a. Disfarmer, between 1939 and 1945.
Not content to merely study books of the photos, the Seattlebased Frisell, 58, embarked on a road trip that took him and his wife from the Carolinas, through Georgia and Alabama, west to Mississippi and then across the river to Heber Springs, Arkansas. It was there that Disfarmer chronicled the hardscrabble existence etched into the faces of the area's residents. But he also captured the joy and optimism that seemed to be dawning as the Depression ebbed and the can-do spirit of World War II era emerged.
The experience proved invaluable for Frisell, who for decades has been combining keenly honed improvisational chops with a profound interest and appreciation of American roots music.
Treading the terrain on which Disfarmer worked, lived and died - alone and undiscovered, apparently, for days - and meeting some of the people who knew and even sat for the photographer deeply affected Frisell and, ultimately, the music he crafted. "I don't know how it works exactly," the soft-spoken guitarist admits with a chuckle, talking by phone from a hotel room in Philadelphia before an evening performance with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollensen. "I guess it's more subconscious.
I just didn't want [the Disfarmer Project] to be some sort of representation of the pictures; I wanted it to have something to do with [Disfarmer], too. I didn't actually write music while I was there, but I think I took some of that with me when I went back home."
As with his music, Frisell's artistic process defies an easy, superficial read. Sure, the people he meets and the sights he sees leave an imprint as he rambles about the country, but his sense of place runs deeper than that.
"I'm really affected by the air in different places," he explains. "There's just no way to describe it, with all the traveling I do. Yesterday we were in Kentucky, and now I'm in Philadelphia. As soon as you step off the plane, it's like the first thing I notice is the smell of the air somehow. It's not just the way things or people look, but something in the air. And it somehow affects the way music would happen in those places."
The air in the mountains, Frisell says, leaves him particularly giddy. Perhaps it's his sense memories of growing up in Denver, Colorado, or maybe it's the elevated altitude, but being in the mountains provides an emotional rush for the guitarist.
Like many kids of the 1950s and '60s, Frisell wanted to be a rock 'n' roller. He received his first real guitar, a $20 archtop, as a Christmas present when he was 11, and the next year he purchased his first record, a 45 of the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" b/w "Surfer Girl." While it wasn't exactly the rock instrument of choice, Frisell also played the clarinet in his high-school concert band, and has fond memories of cutting up on the bandstand with his buddies. There he learned the importance of musical irreverence, still very much a part of his repertoire.
"We'd sort of be goofing off or playing stuff backwards or making trouble for the band director," he relates impishly. "Not to make fun of the music, but music is the place where you can really just do whatever you want, and it doesn't hurt anybody. It's just an amazing world to be in."
Other amazing worlds opened up to a teenage Frisell when he began hanging out at the Denver Folklore Center, a combination record store, music store and concert venue. Frisell took lessons from guitar teacher Bob Marcus, but also absorbed plenty just from being on the scene and keeping his ears open. Trolling for musical nuggets, he learned about Chicago blues greats such as Buddy Guy, country blues players such as Elizabeth Cotten, and even heard the Mothers of Invention's 1966 debut record, Freak Out!, for the first time.
"I'd just go there and look at the records and overhear conversations," Frisell recalls. "There was so much music that I discovered there, just listening to what people were talking about in the store."
Frisell became enamored with jazz after hearing Wes Montgomery's records at about age 16. Suddenly a world of possibilities opened up. He vividly remembers the watershed moments of 1968, including the deaths of Senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. - the latter of which was announced onstage during a performance of his high-school concert band - as well as guitar hero Montgomery. He had been planning to see the reigning jazz-guitar king in concert in Denver, but never got the chance; Montgomery died from a heart attack at age 43.
Country music, however, could not have been further from his mind. Its hipness quotient to a teenaged jazz and rock fiend would have been up there with polka and algebra.
"It was almost a social thing," he says. "I was trying to be a hip bebopper jazz guy, like a beatnik, which was ridiculous because it was like 1970. Since then, looking back at so much of the pop music that I love or loved as a kid, it's really coming from [country], from Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family."
Toss Bob Dylan into that mix, too. Frisell has included Dylan covers on many of his recordings, including a duet version of "Masters of War" with mentor Jim Hall on the recent doubledisc recording Hemispheres. Certainly Dylan made no secret of his love for county music.
Still, a number of years would elapse before Frisell, who went on to a stellar jazz career as a distinctive stylist alongside ECM-label stalwarts Paul Motian and Jan Garbarek in the 1980s, would fully embrace his inner hillbilly.
While Frisell has long made use of a sighing, crying guitar sound that drinks deeply from blues and roots music, his real thirst for Americana began in the early '90s. Recordings on the Nonesuch label, such as 1993's Have a Little Faith and 1994's This Land, found him dipping into the songbooks of Dylan, John Hiatt, Muddy Waters and Stephen Foster on the former, and setting the tone for the latter's stark and eerie soundscapes with a 1936 Walker Evans photo of a lonesome Delta train depot on the CD cover. At about the same time, he received a commission from the Arts at St. Ann's group in Brooklyn to compose music for three Buster Keaton silent films. The project further teased out his love of dusty Americana and resulted in two Frisell recordings released under the heading "Music for the Films of Buster Keaton": The High Sign/One Week and Go West.
But it was a trip to Nashville that truly kicked wide the saloon doors. For the sessions that became his 1997 recording Nashville, Frisell teamed up with Music City session players such as dobro player Jerry Douglas, banjoist Ron Block, mandolinist Adam Steffey and bassist Viktor Krauss.
"I had never been to Nashville, really," he confesses. "It was a big thing for me, meeting those guys down there. It was a whole different world, a different way of people playing together. I had never played with a banjo player or a mandolin player before. Since then, I've done way more research into what all that is. And I think I would have been too intimidated to even deal with it if I had known more about it. I just went in there with this wide-open, naive sort of thing, and it maybe worked out for the best. Then it got me going with, like, 'Man, I gotta figure out what's goin' on with the banjo.' And then I started listening to a lot more of that [country] music."
Frisell's explorations led him into the dark recesses of Appalachian and bluegrass traditions, where he found durable, often-moody melodies with which to fiddle. On the deeply creepy yet highly entertaining Ghost Town, from 2000, Frisell employed electric and acoustic guitars, banjo and loops on a solo set that found him interpreting country classics like A.P. Carter's "Wildwood Flower" and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Subsequent releases, such as an eponymous trio recording with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, and The Willies, followed a similar path, as Frisell honed a sound and aesthetic that surgically examined the very DNA of American song. (A recent Nonesuch compilation, The Best of Bill Frisell Vol. 1: Folk Songs, contains a representative sampling.)
A soundtrack Frisell prepared for the 2007 Leonard Farlinger film All Hat makes use of the traditional ballad "John Hardy," a motif that wends throughout the countrified musical terrain. Over the years, he's frequently borrowed such entries from the Public Domain songbook, as well as perennial favorites from Stephen Foster and Hank Williams.
"[Williams] is somebody I came to much later," Frisell says. "Some of that stuff, though, like Stephen Foster - that goes way back for me, like stuff that my mother would sing. There are certain tunes that I'll play that are really part of my blood, that have been there as long as I can remember. But some stuff isn't.
It's not like when Doc Watson plays one of those songs - it's probably something he's heard since he was a baby. It wasn't part of my culture. My culture was more the Mickey Mouse Club and surf music."
The sophistication with which Frisell approaches roots music grows with each project. This can be attributed in part to a remarkable ensemble of players he's amassed over the years, which he skillfully employs almost as another instrument.
Violinist Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts, bassist Scherr and drummer Wollensen are among the crew that has contributed to some of Frisell's finest works, including last year's far-ranging History, Mystery. The double-disc collection provides a summation of what the guitarist has been up to during the past decade or so, with tastes of ominous backwoods rambles, angular and atmospheric modern jazz, exotically spiced world music and individualistic covers of bebop and R&B tunes.
"It's almost like a paradox," Frisell explains of his kaleidoscopic view of past, present and future. "I love looking back, but somehow, looking back is a way to get into the future for me, too. With music, I struggle to find something new all the time. Music is always moving ahead, and it seems like the more I look back, the more momentum it gives me to move into the future at the same time."
Frisell isn't interested in nostalgia for its own sake, which is evident in his melodic, harmonic and sonic approach to the material. Great Grandma likely would have dropped her teeth had she heard Frisell's music issuing from her Victrola.
"It's not like I'm trying to re-create [past eras] so much," he says. "But I find the more I find out where everything comes from, it gives me more momentum to head off into the unknown.".