Arts: Heading on down that country road

Purists have reacted with disdain to Bill Frisell's flirtation with Nashville. But it's not such a crazy move for a jazz guitarist, says Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
According to the governing stereotypes, jazz and country music belong to very different schools. Jazz, of course, is more the indoors sort, always skiving off games in favour of a drag or worse in the showers, while country is much more robust and public-spirited, despite an alarming tendency to break into tears at the drop of a hat. So when the leading guitarist Bill Frisell, whose last album, Quartet, was just about the best jazz record of 1996, chose to follow it with a set recorded completely in Nashville, accompanied by a backing band of New-Country pickers, there was bound to be trouble. And there was.

The first review of the new album that he read, recalls Frisell - who's a very shy, very nice and entirely unshowbizzy man in his middle-forties - was in a newspaper from his home-town of Seattle. "It said I should go and live in Las Vegas," he says sadly. "And that I had sold out and jumped on the country bandwagon." This bandwagon, such as it is, is hardly cutting a swathe through America's Billboard charts. Though recent albums by singer Cassandra Wilson, and by the duo of Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, have used acoustic instruments and the harmonies of old-time hillbilly music to considerable effect, neither is what you could call a hat-act.

And Frisell's new Nashville is, it should be said, mostly marvellous stuff, in which the guitarist's patent, pedal-driven sound (which launched a thousand imitators, U2's The Edge being the most famous of them) is harnessed to a pony and trap of galloping banjo and mandolin to range over a very tasteful territory of hillbilly-jazz. There's a cover version of a Neil Young tune and a hoary old Skeeter Davis hit, but it's hardly a crass commercial cross-over. It's not even really country, but more like bluegrass, the Celtic-derived mountain music made memorable by old- time performers such as Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.

It's not as if Frisell is exactly courting mass-popularity either. His credentials are impeccably those of the New York avant-garde, though over the years he has collaborated on recordings by Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and Ginger Baker. His signature sound of lonesome, ethereal atmospherics was modelled originally on the ambient examples of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, and he usually plays a custom-made electric guitar (a Klein), with the addition of a digital-delay unit that creates weird, phased effects, rather than the traditional fat-bellied jazz semi-acoustic. "But as part of my mid-life crisis," he says, "I'm going back to the acoustic guitar more and more, and to older jazz players like Jim Hall that I started out listening to."

If Frisell is bemused by the new album's initial reception, he has the look of someone who is bemused by most things. His gentle, broad, bespectacled face and quiet, slightly Western-twanged voice (he's originally from Colorado, so he should be able to be country if he wishes), suggest a marginally more hip John Denver. He's also a friend and neighbour of the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, and his last album consisted largely of scores for Larson animations. Indeed, you can easily imagine him as one of the cartoonist's perpetually amazed onlookers, staring slack-jawed at a congress of cowboy-hatted cows drinking coffee in a roadside diner.

The idea for the new album began, he says, when Bob Hurwitz, his record label boss at Nonesuch, introduced him to the President of Asylum Records, Kyle Lehning, with a view to making contacts in Nashville, the country music capital. Links were made with dobro player Jerry Douglas and Lyle Lovett's bassist Viktor Krauss, and an initial jamming session was arranged that eventually, together with one other session, produced the material for the album.

"I never really played country music, even though everyone always makes that reference," Frisell says. "But almost 20 years ago my parents moved to North Carolina, near to where there were lots of fiddle artists and stuff. I really love bluegrass music and Doc Watson actually lives near to my parents, but there's all kinds of musicians there who have regular jobs and just get together to play at weekends, which is something I really appreciate. I love that kind of acoustic stuff and I decided that for the record I would be the only electric instrument, with mandolin, banjo and bass. I didn't know what was going to happen. With my regular band, I'll write the music out but, with these guys, it was more by ear and I was amazed at how easily they learnt it. It was all done in just a couple of days with no rehearsal."

The musicians recorded at Sound Emporium studio in Nashville, setting up in a circle around the mikes as they would have done in the old days. "They just did what they did," Frisell says. "Whatever happened came through the way I played and how they responded to it, and there was a lot of really sensitive playing. There wasn't even any period of adjustment, or of being uncomfortable; it was just really fun and they had this perfect mix of knowing the tradition of the music without being uptight about it. It took courage to play with me because, in country, there's a movement of purism similar to that in jazz, a belief that it has to be the old way - and, if someone tries to break out of that, they can get into trouble. It's like Alison Krauss's band [Union Station, from which some of his players were drawn]: they're so good, but in country they're controversial. But really, the music is all coming from the same place; in the old days even Bill Monroe played jazz."

For his next project, Frisell will continue to defy the purists. He's hooked up with the great rock drummer Jim Keltner, with Viktor Krauss once again on bass, and recorded an album of his own compositions that is rockier than Nashville. "My style probably comes more out of the electric guitar," he says. "From Brian Eno things with Daniel Lanois, and from Robert Fripp's stuff when he used two tape recorders and an enormous loop of tape to get that delay."

Frisell gets the same kind of delay now from a digital box of tricks, but the effect is still that of an old-style Popular Electronics boffin trying to capture the melancholy sound of distant train whistles and the whispers of wind rattling against a wire fence. And what, you feel, could be more authentically country than that?

`Nashville' is available now on the Nonesuch label (CD 7559 794152)