Pastoral Jazz and the Unspoken Code

Pastoral Jazz and the Unspoken Code

by Geoffrey Himes
copyright © 2001 Geoffrey Himes

When people talk about "jazz fusion," they're referring to the mix of jazz with rock and funk. When people speak of "Third Stream Music," they're alluding to the commingling of jazz and classical elements. But what term do they use when they talk about mixing jazz and country or folk music? Well, they haven't really needed one, because it happens so rarely.

They may need one soon, however, for artists such as Bill Frisell, Bela Fleck, Charlie Haden, Paul McCandless, Olu Dara, Cassandra Wilson, Van Manakas, Scotty Anderson, David Grisman, and the Jazz Mandolin Project are scrambling country and jazz ingredients together with increasing frequency. Some people call it "Hillbilly Jazz" after the pioneering Vassar Clements album of the same title and tendency. Some use the rather bland label, "new acoustic music." I've always preferred "pastoral jazz" to distinguish this end of the jazz spectrum from its urban counterpart.

Whatever you call it, this jazz-country hybrid sound is becoming more and more important. And no one is making more striking music in this area than guitarist Bill Frisell, who came to Chicago's Old Town School Friday (April 20, 2001). Unlike, say, Bela Fleck, who came out of the bluegrass world and moved into jazz, Frisell was a jazz musician who discovered country almost by accident.

"Early in my career," he explains, "journalists would always write that I was from Colorado and the wide-open spaces of the plains were reflected in my music. But the thing was, I grew up in downtown Denver; I was never much of an outdoors person, and I went to a downtown high school where I played a lot of funk and R&B.

"And yet, when I started making my own jazz records, there was a lot of open space in my music. It didn't come from Colorado; it came from Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and all that impressionistic jazz I really loved. But I started thinking, 'Maybe there's something to this; maybe there's a country element in my music that I'm not aware of. Maybe people are hearing something in my melodies and harmonies that I'm missing.'"

So when Bob Hurwitz, the head of Nonesuch Records, suggested in 1995 that Frisell cut an album with some country and bluegrass musicians, the guitarist was both intrigued and intimidated. He soon found himself in a Nashville 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).

"It's always exciting to play with new people," Frisell admits, "but it's also very scary. In this case, I hadn't even met these people before and we only had two days to make the record, so that made it even more intimidating. Plus, these guys used a whole different musical language, and I didn't know the language.

"When I play with jazz guys, there's this unspoken code we all know. Those guys have the same thing, but I didn't know the code. In a way, I was kind of lucky that I didn't try to play in their style; I just did what I always do and used my instincts. They were open enough and cool enough to go with it. I would have been in a real mess if I had gone down and tried to play like Doc Watson after hearing him for five minutes."

For all of Frisell's trepidation, the six musicians sound quite comfortable together on the resulting 1997 album, Nashville (Nonesuch). The journalists had been right -- there was something about the guitarist's patient, minimalist melodies and floating harmonies that lent themselves to country instruments and country phrasing. And there was something about the natural ease of Frisell's playing that encouraged these Music City 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.

"But when I did this Nashville project, I realized I had heard a lot of country music over the years and I realized I really liked it. And when I let myself like it, I became fascinated with trying to find what it had in common with jazz. 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. I like it when our assumptions get messed up. The deeper you look into American music, the more the names, boundaries and all the racial stuff just melts away. It just becomes music. That's what I'm trying to find."

That search has taken Frisell, now 50, from his Denver high school to Boston's Berklee School of Music to New York's downtown avant-garde scene to Germany's ECM Records to his current home in Seattle. Frisell began at ECM in 1986 as a member of Marc Johnson's Bass Desires quartet (with John Scofield and Peter Erskine) and wound up becoming the label's unofficial house guitarist and landing a contract under his own name.

It was ECM that first inspired the notion of "pastoral jazz." Just because jazz had always been an urban music -- reflecting the jittery rhythms, metallic horns and surging energy of America's cities --didn't mean that it always had to be. In ECM's signature sound-the patiently unfolding arrangements, the softly glowing tones and the slurred legato phrasing-perceptive critics spied the possibility of a rural jazz, a shared improvisation reflecting farms and forests rather than streets and skyscrapers.

Frisell played a lot of different music in those early years, and his collaborations with New Yorkers such as Julius Hemphill, Vernon Reid and John Zorn were certainly quite urban. But Frisell was most impressive in pastoral-jazz settings, either as a leader on ECM or as a sideman with Johnson, Bob Moses and Jan Garbarek. It was on these projects that his distinctive style -- smeared, impressionistic melodies with much of the harmony implied by partial chords -- first emerged.

"I wanted to play like John McLaughlin," Frisell confesses. "I was trying to play that fast and that strong. When I went to see him in concert in 1975, though, it was so good that I almost wanted to quit. I told myself, 'What's the use of even trying? I'm never going to get to that.' But as soon as I felt that, I gave up trying to play like him, and I figured I had to go my own way.

"A while later, I was taking lessons from Jim Hall, and he taught me to find the two notes within a six-note chord that are the most important notes, maybe the most dissonant or surprising notes. I discovered that by implying some notes, the sound became bigger rather than smaller. And I learned to leave enough space so that when you do play something it has more weight. That's something I've been working ever since."

In a sense Frisell's whole career has been a process of paring away the excess to find the distilled essence of the music. And that quest has proven a natural fit for country and folk influences, where minimalism and understatement are a way of life.

After the Nashville album, Frisell pursued this new direction by reuniting with Viktor Krauss and recruiting Jim Keltner (drummer for Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, etc.) for the album, Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch). Frisell, Krauss and Keltner then joined Cooder, jazz keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and country-rock guitarist Greg Leisz for the incandescent 1999 album, Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch).

Leisz (who has played pedal steel guitar for Dave Alvin, Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams) is also on Frisell's latest release, Blue Dream (Nonesuch), and in the touring quartet that got to Chicago (along with bassist David Piltch and drummer Brian Blade).

Leisz's weeping steel phrases and twangy fills make explicit the country flavors implied by Frisell's newest batch of seductively melodic compositions. Some draw from Mississippi blues, others from Louisiana brass bands, others from Appalachian ballads, but they're united by the feel of rural, 19th century music being pulled into the 21st century.

"Greg has played with so many singers," Frisell says, "that I start thinking of myself as a singer when I play guitar. And thinking of myself as a singer makes me more conscious than ever of playing melody. For me that's the key to showing who you are. If you forget about the melody, you're just playing some sort of mechanical music with no personality to it. With guys like Miles, Monk and Sonny Rollins, it was their take on the melody that gave them their own personal sound. And that fits right in with country music."

Geoffrey Himes has written about music on a weekly basis in the Washington Post since 1977, and has also written for the Oxford American, Rolling Stone, No Depression, the Chicago Tribune, Country Music Magazine, Sing Out, the Baltimore Sun, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Request, Down Beat, Musician, National Public Radio, Bluegrass Unlimited, Crawdaddy, the Unicorn Times, the Patuxent newspaper, National Public Radio, and other outlets. He has contributed to the following books: The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Country Music, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide and Best Music Writing 2000.

This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2001

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