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The Superman of the electric guitar

June 22, 2012

Nation music critic Gene Santoro once described the bespectacled, mild-mannered Bill Frisell as “the Clark Kent of the electric guitar.” A fitting description for an ordinary-looking guy who could probably walk down any street unnoticed. When you hear him play, however, there is no mistaking one of the most recognizable voices on guitar to emerge in a long time.

The Clark Kent of the electric guitar (photo, billfrisell.com)

This weekend, I’ll be heading to see Bill Frisell for the sixth time (seventh, if I count a wonderful show he played backing Robin Holcomb in 1990). He’ll be showcasing work from his latest record, All We Are Saying, in which he reinterprets the songs of John Lennon.

I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was about five years old, and Frisell is probably my favourite musician on the planet, but in spite of this recipe, I can’t say the record is one of my Frisell favourites. It’s fine, but somehow I wish he’d pushed things more on this one, maybe been a little less faithful to the original songs. Nonetheless, a fair Frisell record still beats most music that’s out there. The one thing that makes All We Are Saying a bit of departure is that it has a less American feel than much of his catalogue.

For the last 20-plus years, Frisell has explored the roots of all forms of American music. At one point I was hoping to interview him on the subject of Americana. Unfortunately, the publication for which I was writing didn’t have enough cachet, so no luck. I did get to review the show he was playing in Vancouver however.

Still, I knew my idea was a good one, and frankly I’ve been surprised over the years that jazz writers weren’t picking up on the theme. Finally, late last year, NPR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead wrote an overview, “Bill Frisell’s Pan-Americana,” for emusic.com. He doesn’t interview Frisell, but he does offer a good introduction to Frisell’s key records from the 1980s up to his recent work, and while he dwells on the roots influences in the guitar player’s works, he also cites the many other musical styles.

Frisell started as an ethereal player on ECM Records working with the label’s atmospheric music-makers like saxophonist Jan Garbarek. At the same time, he also worked in a post-bop trio led by drumming legend Paul Motion (who passed away last year).

Before long, Frisell was a fixture in – for lack of a better term – New York’s downtown scene, playing with Bobby Previte, Tim Berne and, of course, John Zorn. The latter’s band, Naked City, flickered for too brief a time, but it left some serious scorch marks. The quintet’s fast motion jump cuts and genre-smashing remain unchallenged. Zorn, Frisell and the rest of the group would try more things in the space of one short composition than most musicians do in a lifetime. Think I’m exaggerating? Listen the self-titled album on Nonesuch or Radio on Avant. Any band you listen to after will sound ordinary.

All this says nothing about Frisell’s extraordinary solo career, which at many points has often seemed like a musical catalogue of America, covering everything from bebop to jazz-skronk to classical to pop to country to folk…you get the idea. His sounds are as big, varied and expansive as the nation in which he lives, and he’s mastered the use of effects pedals like no one else.

To get a sense of the range of Frisell’s work, you should read the Whitehead article. The best I can do here is provide a glimpse into the half dozen or so solo works that, to me, sum up the man’s work best.

Before We Born: His debut on Elektra (though on the Musician subsidiary, not Nonesuch). Along with Zorn’s Naked City album and Hal Willner’s tribute albums, this album did more to shatter my preconceptions about labeling types of music than anything else I’d heard before or since. His sound here is hard, distorted, angular yet transcendent. Around this time some critics were describing Frisell’s sound as a mix of his idols Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix, and it fits. The Zorn-arranged “High Plains Drifter” is a fine example of the kind of genre-smashing these guys were doing at the time, and while the sound here is definitely New York downtown, the whole album hints at the western motifs that Frisell would use regularly, right down to his cover art, ever since. One of my favourite guitar albums.

Have a Little Faith: If you own one Frisell album, this should be it. I’m not big on superlatives, but for me, Have a Little Faith is the record of the 1990s. With a stellar quintet featuring Don Byron on clarinet, Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, Guy Klucevsek on accordion and the inimitable Joey Baron on drums, Frisell guides us through a historical tour of the best in American music: Charles Ives, Sonny Rollins, the John Hiatt title track, Muddy Waters, John Philip Sousa, Stephen Foster and, yes, even Madonna. Even if the rest of the album stunk, this would still be worth owning for Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite, which eats up the opening 20 minutes. Superlative.

Quartet: After Joey Baron lit out for the territories on his own, Frisell stopped using drummers for a while. This first post-Baron offering was a gem, a piece of quiet chamber jazz with some beautiful Frisell originals. Another one of his best. Moody, quiet, a little confusing, like that moment you’re aware you’re dreaming just before you wake. Several of the tracks made their way on to soundtrack for a Gary Larson TV special, Tales from the Far Side. The Thomas Hart Benton painting on the cover is a nice touch of Americana.

Nashville: Again going drum-less, Frisell opted to work with some crack session players from Music City for the aptly titled Nashville. But unlike so much contemporary country, which sounds like watered-down rock, this music is traditional, often in a bluegrass vein or occasionally veering into Ry Cooder roots territory. I think there was a big debate in Downbeat magazine at the time as to whether this should have been eligible for votes as best “jazz” recording, but I don’t think Frisell cares much for labels.

The Intercontinentals: Some regulars show up here, but this time out, Frisell has a few guests from far away. Again, like so much of what Frisell does, it’s hard to classify this as “jazz.” It’s really more of a world beat album. At times, it reminds me a little of Cooder’s work with African guitarist Ali Farka Toure; at others, like something by Caetano Veloso.

Unspeakable: My favourite Frisell album from the last 10 years, this one was produced by Hal Willner and features loads of Willner samples. It’s not hip-hop, but it taps the same roots. Early on, Frisell veers dangerously close to what I call “jazz whiz” (i.e. smooth jazz, that syrupy concoction of soul, funk and jazz improvisation; kind of like what Cheez Whiz is to cheese) but then he pulls back. With Kenny Wolleson in the drum chair now, this music is often funky, at other times evocative of old Stax soul, but as it moves on, Frisell creates an inreasingly surreal soundscape. While some of his records can be grouped together stylistically, this one stands out. It’d be a nice to hear another like it. Footnote: Unspeakable won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album; occasionally, the Grammies get it right.

I’ve left out many other great Frisell disks (This Land, Lookout for Hope) because I’ve got to stop somewhere and this post is already longer than most (Thanks, if you’re still reading). For the same reason, I haven’t touched on his work supporting other musicians (Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, Vic Chesnutt, Loudon Wainwright III, tribute master Hal Willner’s projects, etc.).

I could go on all day about the Clark Kent of the electric guitar. Santoro came up with that nickname for him in 1989, and in the two decades since, Frisell has continued to create some of the most mind-bending music to be heard, even for fans that think they know what’s coming next. After all this time, he’s earned the right to step out of the phone booth, take off his glasses (figuratively speaking) and put on that Superman cape.

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