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Wide Open Spaces

Bill Frisell Finds the Jazz Vibe in Country Music's Roomy Expanse

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/9/2002

Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano are jazz musicians of a similar age and background--the New York avant-garde of the 1980s, particularly in drummer Paul Motian's band. So when they reunited with drummer Paul Motian for a rare live show at New York's Village Vanguard in August, you might have expected the two principal soloists to sound much alike.

They sounded strikingly different. Saxophonist Lovano blows a big, brawny tenor, playing bluesy changes with a swinging syncopation. It was the sound of the city--as aggressive and busy as crowded sidewalks, honking taxis, roaring trains, and clanging factories--the sound that has dominated jazz from its inception.

Frisell pursued something quite different. His guitar breaks were full of twangy accents, quiet lulls, and lonesome cadenzas. It was the sound of the rural countryside--as open and receptive as landscapes dominated by silos, pines, steeples, and long highways. His music was a bold assertion that jazz is not inherently urban music, that it can improvise on country as easily as blues, that it can draw from the vocabulary of Appalachia and Texas as readily as from New Orleans, Havana, and New York.

When the trio tackled "Epistrophy," Frisell focused not on Thelonious Monk's famous riffs but on his trademark pauses. The guitarist, looking like a middle-aged Harry Potter with his boyish face, round glasses, and baggy jeans, used those pauses to frame new melodic fragments that sounded like Monk on a mountaintop. The approach was so unusual and rewarding that Lovano couldn't help but laugh.

The laughter of surprise and pleasure should be the reaction to Frisell's latest album, The Willies (Nonesuch). Recorded with banjo player Danny Barnes of Austin, Texas, bluegrass-punk band the Bad Livers and bassist Keith Lowe of the Wayne Horvitz Quartet, it includes such old-time folk songs as "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Single Girl, Married Girl," and "Goodnight Irene." Yet the trio applies the theme-and-variation approach of jazz to these songs as successfully as if they had been working with Gershwin and Ellington.

A song like the Carter Family's "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man" is slowed down and stretched until the sense of desperation becomes acute. And when Frisell drops substitute chords into the mix, the atmosphere becomes as ominous as a morning fog with a killer on the loose. For Dock Boggs' "Sugar Baby," Frisell plays the vocal line on electric guitar against Barnes' bouncy banjo riff. But as the two parts diverge, the tune sounds less like Boggs and more like Jim Hall playing with Béla Fleck.

"I made this record because I wanted to document my relationship with Danny Barnes," Frisell says. "A few years ago, when I was discovering all this music for the first time, I went to hear Del McCoury at this Seattle club, and Danny was opening the show. It flipped me out to hear him, because he was the real deal."

Frisell appreciated Barnes' playing so much that he tracked Barnes down. "He didn't know who I was--I was just some guy who showed up at his house," Frisell says. "Gradually, we just started playing together a lot. He was open to everything, even though he grew up in a completely different way than I did, playing with all these old fiddler guys and singing these old gospel songs in church. [And] what fascinates me about all this stuff is trying to go backward and find where things were the same. If you go back far enough, this music is not all that different from jazz music or soul music. I'm trying to find those places where it intersects."

Frisell started this quest in 1995 when Bob Hurwitz, the head of Nonesuch Records, suggested that the guitarist cut an album with country and bluegrass musicians. Frisell entered a Nashville, Tenn., studio with Alison Krauss' husband (harmonica player Pat Bergeson), her brother (bassist Viktor Krauss), and past, present, and future members of her band (mandolinist Adam Steffey, banjoist Ron Block, and dobroist Jerry Douglas).

The resulting 1997 album, Nashville, was a revelation. Frisell's patient melodies and floating harmonies lent themselves to country instruments and phrasing. And there was something about the natural ease of Frisell's playing that encouraged these Nashville pros to jump off the cliff of mountain music and into the free fall of jazz improvisation.

"My interest in country music really started with that project," Frisell confesses. "When I grew up in Colorado, country was around the periphery all the time, but I tried to ignore it and even actively resisted it. When I was a teenager, the rock 'n' roll I liked--stuff by Dylan and the Byrds--had a lot of country in it, but as soon as I discovered jazz, I became a total jazz snob and shut the door on everything else."

The Nashville project changed his outlook. "I became fascinated with trying to find what [country] had in common with jazz," he says. "I started listening to a lot of older music from the early part of the century, the Harry Smith Anthology, the Library of Congress recordings, and the old blues guys. What interested me the most were those moments when you couldn't tell if someone was black or white, from deep in the South or from Canada, whether it was African music being influenced by hillbilly music or the other way around. . . . The deeper you look into American music, the more the names, boundaries, and all the racial stuff just melts away. It just becomes music."

Frisell's own music has taken him from his Denver high school to Boston's Berklee College of Music to New York's downtown avant-garde scene to Germany's ECM Records to his current home in Seattle. But it all started right here, in Baltimore, where the guitarist was born in 1951.

"I was only a couple months old when my parents moved to Colorado, but I would visit my grandparents in Catonsville every summer," he says. "I can't imagine this now, but when I was 6, my brother and I would take the trolley car to downtown Baltimore by ourselves. I remember all those rowhouses with the marble steps. I remember it being so hot that the tar on the street was bubbling up."

During the 1980s, Frisell became the house guitarist at ECM at a time when label mates such as Pat Metheny, Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, Oregon, and Dave Holland were pioneering a rural-based jazz. That approach is today being pursued by the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Fleck, Charlie Haden, Olu Dara, and David Grisman.

But no one has done more to explore the possibilities of country-jazz fusion than Frisell. Since Nashville, he's proven that country has much to offer jazz with 1998's Gone, Just Like a Train, 1999's Good Dog, Happy Man, 2001's Blues Dream, and, now, The Willies. For Frisell, country is an untapped vein of material on which jazz can work its improvisational alchemy.

"There are different things you have to deal with in a Carter Family tune than a Gershwin tune," Frisell says. "In a Carter Family tune, I have to worry more about space. It's almost as if it were closer to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, where he took the chords away and he didn't have to worry so much about complex harmonies; it was more about space. It's not that one is easier or harder, higher or lower. They're just different."

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