Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

4 December 1994

America Lost and Found

Guitarist Bill Frisell is the cowlick on the towhead of American music. In his most signature mode, he favors a languorous, spacious sound that combines cool jazz craft with evocative country twang to suggest cumulus clouds drifting high above the Great Plains. Yet since he way a key participant of the early-'80s downtown scene and as guitarist with both John Zorn's Naked City and Wayne Horvitz's President, he's no stranger to the hardcore-squonk ethos of urban sonic overkill. Born in Baltimore and raised in Colorado, he participated in the '80s migration of New Yorkers to Seattle.

A fluidly morphing musical chameleon, Frisell's adaptability has made him a popular sideman. As a bandleader, he is charmingly self-effacing, often disappearing into his own compositional woodwork; but like wood nails in sturdy shaker furniture, remove him from the design and the whole thing falls apart. Since first recording with Eberhard Weber in 1979, Frisell has enhanced more projects than I'm certain even he could recount (in an interview he once mentioned performing in some 29 different configurations in 1988 alone). As an itinerant utility player who weaves easily between jazz, rock, and avant-garde fields, Frisell consecrates feelings about America that were once left exclusively to folkies. Frisell's music, however, conveys an America as personal as it is elaborate. The cover-art for last year's Have a Little Faith and this year's This Land (both Elektra Nonesuch), match his multihued music to black-and-white documentary-realist photographs evoking an exuberant and spacious nation. Have a Little Faith in particular reclaims a musical landscape too-easily repressed, with transcendently pleasurable versions of Copland's Billy the Kid , Sousa's "Washington Post March," Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," and Madonna's "Live to Tell." Think Woody Guthrie via Charles Ives.

Muting his attack with a volume pedal, Frisell evokes a pedal-steel horn section on these records. Compressed and delayed, the notes swell into a creamy chocolate stout of a sound that combines lushly with Don Byron's clarinet and Curtis Fowlkes's trombone. The writing on This Land is Frisell's best to date. Pieces like "Jimmy Carter" (parts one and two), "Strange Meeting," "Julius Hemphill," and "Amarillo Barbados" suggest moods ranging from Walker Evans realism to Charlie Chaplin surrealism. Thie album is a personal, highly detailed cross-country tour; Frisell writes music homespun and strange, one man's generous take on the odd miracle of being a 20th-century American.

Americans don't get much odder than dour magician Buster Keaton, whose silent films Frisell and his intensely sympathetic rhythm section--drummer Joey Baron and bassist Kermit Driscoll--have been accompanying for the past couple of years. While it would have been easy to merely punch up Keaton's gags, the trios's emotional and inventive music--to be released in February as Go West and The High Sign & One Week (both Elektra Nonesuch)

--offers a sensitive commentary on Keaton and Keaton's country. Frisell's ah-shucks riffs complement Keaton's exaggerated modesty wonderfully.

Frisell also complements--well, OK, overwhelms--his bandleader on the Ginger Baker Trio's Going Back Home (Atlantic). Reinventing Cream for the '90s (with Charlie Haden (!) on bass), Going Back Home ranges from Texas to Timor in smoothly insinuating jazz-rock fashion, and happens to be one of Frisell's best records ever. Same goes for Gary Peacock and Frisell's Just So Happens (Postcards), on which Frisell offers a completely different artistic face in poetically lyrical improvisations highlighted by not one but two versions of "Home on the Range." On the other hand, Frisell's inability to turn sow into silk is evidenced by his playing on Michael Shrieve's Fascination (CMP import), and with Victor Bruce Godsey and Brian Ales on American Blood Safety in Numbers (Intuition)--but imperfection is American, too!

Last weekend Frisell brought his all-American quintet--which now includes trumper Ron Miles and violinist Eyvind Kang--to the Knitting Factory for three nights. While Frisell and Baron reportedly trashed the room with duets Thursday night, the two sets I heard the following evening caught me offguard. Low-key to the point of solemnity (except for Baron's continually amusing punctuations), the material seemed long on slow, subtle vamps and Frisell's best Western digital textures, but short on drama. Of course, it might have sounded like background music because it was: The entire first set consisted of Frisell's score for fellow Seattleite (and Jim Hall student) Gary Larson's recent animated special, Tales From the Far Side . Oh, the evening had wonderful moments, generated mainly by Kang's perfectly structured solos, but mostly evoked for me a long Greyhound bus ride across Kansas. And all of a sudden somebody turns a radio on, and there it is, the perfect song for the perfect mood. Frisell encored both sets with Burt Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer," and America went home contented.