The Heartbeat of America

James Marcus reviews Bill Frisell's career in this edition of Sharps and Flats.

Published June 20, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

the last few years, it has become fashionable to refer to jazz as "America's classical music." The phrase has its fans, who like the upscale, gentrified ring of it, and its detractors, who see it as one more piece of cultural kowtowing. But if America does indeed have its own classical music, I think that the guitarist and composer Bill Frisell qualifies as one of its standard-bearers.
Not that Frisell's work has any kissing-cousin relationship with the symphonic tradition. On the contrary, he draws most heavily on jazz, country and pop, and his guitar playing leans less toward Hindemith than Hendrix (and jazz master Jim Hall.) But Frisell's music seems to have emanated straight from the depths of some national unconscious. It's as grainy and elegant and indisputably American as the Walker Evans photos that adorn his recordings.
From where did this all-American sensibility spring? Frisell was born in Baltimore, grew up in Denver, and studied guitar at Berklee during the late 1970s. Once he moved to New York, his versatility made him a top-drawer sideman. His jazz chops were immaculate, but he could also summon up the kind of eardrum-busting aggressiveness that was part and parcel of the downtown scene.
Soon he was a featured performer in such hardcore ensembles as John Zorn's Naked City (whose tendency to play at volume levels above the threshold of pain once made the critic Francis Davis consider a lawsuit.)
Frisell also recorded on his own throughout the 1980s, often in the company of drummer Joey Baron and bassist Kermit Driscoll. His early records give plenty of room to his distinctive, pedal-steel-like guitar, as well as showcasing his compositional gifts. But Frisell really hit his stride as a leader in 1993 with "Have A Little Faith," a superlative assortment of American music, with cover versions of Aaron Copland and Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Charles Ives, John Phillip Sousa and (of course) Madonna. The band, which included Don Byron on clarinet and Guy Klucevsek on accordion, sounded
alternately stark and ravishing. And although several of the composers represented probably would have refused to shake hands with one another, Frisell gave them all the red-carpet treatment, banishing any distinction between high art and low.
Having tapped this vein of Americana, Frisell just kept going. "This Land" (1994) represented something of a follow-up, with a beefier ensemble and Frisell's own compositions. A year later, he returned to a trio format to record accompaniments for several silent films by Buster Keaton, and he also contributed music for a mammoth, three-disk set of William Burroughs reading "Naked Lunch."
Frisell's latest release, "Quartet," continues his journey into the
heart of the heart of the country, this time with a distinctly Wild Western accent. Again the leader has pared things down: along with his guitar, the disk features only Eyvind Kang on violin, Ron Miles on trumpet, and Curtis Fowkles on trombone. No drums, no bass. Think chamber music. More to the point, imagine the kind of chamber music that might complement the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, this disk's appropriately chosen cover boy.
Frisell never stoops to peddling nostalgia. Whenever the music veers toward folksy traditionalism, he gives it a firm shove in the opposite direction. On the opening cut, for example, Kang sketches out a pleasant, vaguely Appalachian-sounding melody on his fiddle. For the first minute you might think you'd wandered into Folk City, although the muted brass figures don't exactly fit the bill. But then Frisell dive-bombs the performance with a screaming, feedback-laden guitar solo, and the brass players discard their mutes in a
Similarly, Frisell produces two separate variations on "Deep In The Heart of Texas," neither of which shows much in the way of family resemblance. The first, "In Deep," is closer in feeling to the original, but its careening ensembles and Ron Miles' slashing trumpet guarantee that it will never be heard at halftime in the Astrodome. The second, "Bob's Monsters," is an odd and
atmospheric piece, as lovely as anything the guitarist has done.
In the end, "Quartet" doesn't manage to nudge aside "Have A Little Faith" as my all-time favorite Frisell. The idiosyncratic sound can wear thin after a while. In addition, much of the music was originally written for soundtracks--including an animated TV special of Gary Larson's "The Far Side"-- and that may account for the emphasis on mood over melody. Still, it's an original and beautiful disk, and like the rest of Frisell's work, it deserves to resuscitate that much-maligned label, Made In America.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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