The Axman Cometh: Bill Frisell Turns Jazz Guitar Inside Out

Jazz guitar has never had much dirt under its fingernails. In R&B and rock, the guitar has always been the star, percussive and twangy, with bent blue notes aimed at your face. But jazz, older and more urbane, had already been up and running for two decades before anyone figured out how to plug in an ax so that it might actually be heard. The prototypical early jazz guitarist was Freddie Green, noiselessly plinking out chords for the internal benefit of Count Basie’s band. With the advent of guitar electrification, the young phenom Charlie Christian became a star soloist with Benny Goodman’s combo in 1939. You might have figured jazz guitar was off to the races. But after Christian’s pathetically early demise (tuberculosis, age 25), precious few guitarists this side of Wes Montgomery have stood in the mainstream spotlight. The pianists nailed down the job as harmonic gatekeepers and chief accompanists; the horn players, with their ability to sustain notes like singers, took the solo star turns. And the guitarists? They were mostly off in their gilded cages, perfecting boppish single-note runs and fat, plummy tones, and in the main, sounding both virtuosic and somehow beside the point-jazz dessert.

All of which brings us in a fashion to Bill Frisell, who’s got a triumphal new album to his credit, Nashville (Nonesuch), and an upcoming local gig. (His “Nashville Trio” performs Oct. 25 at Arts at St. Ann’s Center, in Brooklyn.) Mr. Frisell belongs to a post-bop generation of jazz guitarists that have made the instrument sing by making it strange. Whereas James (Blood) Ulmer and the late Sonny Sharrock brought a bluesy free-jazz swagger to the proceedings, Mr. Frisell, in his person and in his playing, is the refutation of all that is heroic and priapic about the guitar tradition, a goofy affront to every teenage boy who ever picked up the ax in the desperate hope of getting laid.

I caught up with Mr. Frisell recently in Washington Square Park. He is a sweet-natured man given to the odd giggle and, in a park setting, looks downright chipmunkish. “I never got into the physical thing,” he said. “Getting down on my knees, playing with my teeth. In junior high school, the guys in the band told me, ‘You can’t just stand there, you gotta move around.'” They were wrong, of course. After going through what he describes as a “jazz purist hibernation” in his teens, Mr. Frisell arrived at his own sound and that-in a jazz world devoted to artisanal tinkering over set models-will take you a long way.

He had played accomplished classical clarinet in school. The guitar he figured out on his own terms, guided by a wind player’s instinct for sustaining sound. Mr. Frisell talks about “breathing” into his guitar. He can play a precise, unclinched pattern that, owing to his mastery of a little black box’s worth of special effects, then hangs in space like some astral fog. Mr. Frisell has the unnerving ability to sound like an echo of himself. When the kid from Denver hit New York City in the late 70’s, people noticed.

Mr. Frisell and his signature etherealness were made-to-order for the so-called “po-mo” downtown jazz scene that loved ambiguity and distance and untraceable styles (or if they were borrowed, nobody asked please). He became a south-of-Bleecker-Street sideman stud, most notably with John Zorn, as well as house guitarist and leader for the arty Euro-jazz label ECM. By the end of the 1980’s, Mr. Frisell had moved to Seattle and commenced recording a series of albums that suggested his own oddball take on Americana. For sheer breadth, nothing topped 1993’s Have a Little Faith (Elektra Nonesuch), which covered work by Aaron Copland (“I started to hear this deep, even dark sadness to his stuff”), Charles Ives (“one of the heaviest”), Madonna (“Live to Tell,” and a damn fine version at that), Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins, John Philip Sousa, Stephen Foster and John Hiatt. It was a new vernacular art music of mostly old parts, a heaping helping of Miss American pie.

So Mr. Frisell’s trip to Nashville wasn’t quite the Knitting Factory-to-Grand Old Opry stretch that it might at first seem. Even when he’s at his most abstract, listeners pick up a twang in his sound. He says he used to think he’d absorbed some of the cowboy music that surrounded him in Denver. Now he wonders whether those spacy, sustained guitar notes of his just happen to recall the sound of that country mainstay, the pedal steel. (“A cross between Chet Atkins and a Martian pedal steel player,” one critic wrote admiringly.)

While plaintive otherworldliness may play pretty much the same in any musical language, that was no guarantee that Mr. Frisell was going to walk into a recording studio with a bunch of the finest “new bluegrass” players in Nashville and come out with much of anything to show. “I’m used to going into situations where I don’t know anyone,” said Mr. Frisell, who has a sideman’s self-effacing soul. “This was the first time when it was supposed to be my music. I went in with my usual instincts. If I had tried to play bluegrass, it would have been a mess. I like to get under the music, almost like some kind of liquid seeps in and tries to influence what goes on, but more from the underneath.”

Nashville is anything but a mess. Here, Mr. Frisell’s working methods-by the sounds of it, a cross between fastidious politeness and industrial sabotage-have yielded an album of ravishment. Frisellian tunes like “Gimme a Holler,” “Mr. Memory” and “Dogwood Acres” are his chamber-music meditations on the mandolin-banjo-dobro-string tonalities of country. If the album has a fault, it would be that it’s too pretty, which is forgivable as faults go. (Robin Holcomb’s three numbers do introduce some welcome strangeness, particularly on the old Skeeter Davis hit “The End of the World,” with her backwoods vibrato working overtime.) Listening to “Shucks,” a guitar-dobro colloquy on the melody of “Three Blind Mice,” it’s tempting to hear Mr. Frisell as the jazz world’s answer to David Byrne, his nostalgia for some perfect imaginary place-just where is Mr. Frisell’s Nashville?-a cover for a deeper ironic disaffection. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but with Mr. Frisell, even the threat of musical subversion serves him well.

If Nashville is a sonic experiment that worked out unaccountably well, his previous album, 1996’s Quartet , may be his masterpiece to date. When his longtime trio of drummer Joey Baron and bassist Kermit Driscoll disbanded, Mr. Frisell came up with a lineup of guitar, trumpet, trombone and violin, all lead instruments and no rhythm player in sight. “You have to come up with ways to make it rhythmically interesting,” he said. “It’s inspiring, taking the music and turning it inside out.”

Quartet began life as a soundtrack for a TV special on the Far Side cartoons of Gary Larson, Mr. Frisell’s friend, neighbor and brother in cracked sensibility. It retains a certain spookiness, the unfamiliar textures and slow, melancholic rhythms drawing the listener into a musical otherworld where distinctions between jazz and classical and country can no longer be made out. Even the label “Americana” makes him a little nervous.

“I feel real uncomfortable being put in any kind of label,” he said, “but then I think, maybe for the first time in my life, someone will play my stuff on the radio.”

The Axman Cometh: Bill Frisell Turns Jazz Guitar Inside Out