Don't mention the J-word

Meet John Lurie, Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill - jazzmen for whom jazz is a four-letter word. They constitute 'Sharp New America', says Phil Johnson
Like souls in limbo, American jazz musicians seem doomed to spend each summer wandering through the half-light of European festival grounds, singing for their supper from Paris to Perugia, Grimsby to Gdansk. As they progress from level to level of this ghostly world, each day brings a new airport and each night a fresh concert site. Although they may get to shake hands with the mayor, be presented with the keys to the medieval city or find themselves inducted into some obscure honorary order by a man in lederhosen, they often have only a very vague understanding of where exactly they are. The rigours of the time-honoured if-this-is-Thursday- it-must-be-Belgium syndrome mean that the all-important thematic context - the particular traditions of Sardinia's trumpet festival for instance, or the philosophical background to the 14th annual international Bremen Funk-Fest - is often more apparent to the audience than it is to the musicians, who arrive in a daze and leave in a blur.

Typical jazz festival music reflects this conclusion, with the same players reappearing at supposedly unique events all over the continent and tending to turn in the same performances, which can often leave a lot to be desired. Next week's "Sharp New America" season at the South Bank is an attempt to depart from this lamentable state of affairs, though it also continues the tradition of creating a context that the principals have little knowledge of. The attractions - John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, Bill Frisell's Quartet and Henry Threadgill's Make a Move - are undeniably part of the circuit and they claim not to know that they're part of any season at all, but each represents a definite shift away from the customary manners and manoeuvres of festival jazz. Indeed, talk of jazz may offend them, and it's said that even a whisper of the dreaded J-word can make Henry Threadgill duck for cover. For David Jones of promoters Serious, the intention was "to do something that was more edgy than the rather soft work that normally goes on around the festival circuit. It's a pragmatic link to be sure, but it's also about small, tight-knit units that we like."

The occasion means that John Lurie - a beatnik heart-throb and film actor (Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas) as well as a musician - will play his first British date for more than a decade, though he has been trundling around the European circuit each summer for years. When I ran into him in Sicily a few years ago, at the hotel where the Mike Westbrook Orchestra were billeted while they played three nights to a mystifyingly non-fee-paying yet still small audience at a baroque palace in Catania, Lurie's band had performed that same night, he said, to "three sheep and a goat" at a local dance hall. As the Westbrook coach returned to the hotel in the middle of the night, Lurie waited like a sentinel at the gates, bouncing a basketball and looking cool. He had avoided Britain, he said, because of a critical panning when he played the Venue in Victoria in 1980 or so.

Speaking from a hotel in Germany last week, Lurie expanded on the Lounge Lizards' reluctance to play the UK. "We were fed up with the press, but the real reason was that we were boycotting the record companies, EG and Island, and because England is so expensive. When I started the band in 1979 I called it fake jazz and lazy critics kind of stuck with that." The concept - retro-bebop mixed with avant-garde noise and punk attitude - offended traditional Anglo-Saxon jazz attitudes, though Lurie couldn't care less: his new Queen of All Ears album (as yet unreleased) is more of the same, with knobs on. He's temporarily retired from acting, though he says, like any starlet, "If something great came along, I'd do it." His work on the soundtrack to this year's Get Shorty was, he says, "just a job", but he's happy with the continuing episodes of his Fishing with John television show, in which he travels to far-flung locations with the likes of Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper. As to "Sharp New America", he claims ignorance, but he's happy to be in the same ball-park with Frisell and Threadgill: "I respect both of them a lot, and I don't respect many people. I don't know what category they're in but I like them."

Guitarist Bill Frisell, whose Quartet album has been the jazz hit of the year so far, also pleads ignorance about "Sharp New America" but, like Lurie, he's happy to be on board. "Many of them are close friends, and I really don't think about what it's called. Jazz is where I got a lot of what I do. Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and hundreds of others were the people who set the example for me of how to think about music, and so I guess I do think of myself as a jazz musician because of that. But that's not to say that I copy what they did. It's more a matter of looking at how they saw their world, but it's a different world now compared to when Charlie Parker was around."

Frisell - who I interviewed in Berlin last weekend, the city teeming with American musicians on the circuit - talks so slowly that you're constantly poised to ask another question only to find he's still cogitating on the last one. "I'm not exactly a speedy person," he says, "in my way of talking or my way of moving, and I guess the music just comes from that. Earlier in my career I'd try to copy John McLaughlin and try to play fast until I realised it wasn't going to happen. I'm still trying but instead of playing the whole thing I'll kind of imply it in two or three notes. My style is a way of dealing with my limitations, instead of spending your life trying to do what you can't." His band's performance at the Quasimodo club (booked out for the whole of July with circuit veterans) was exemplary, the drum-and-bass-less group summoning up calypso rhythms, Cool School harmonies and occasional nasty noise with consummate skill. Asked if he notices how many other guitarists, such as U2's The Edge, now copy his airy atmospherics, Frisell is impeccably modest. "I don't think they got it from me," he says. "Occasionally I hear something, but I tried to copy Brian Eno myself years ago..."

Meanwhile, Henry Threadgill, the Chicago reeds player who with his group Air and on a later series of solo albums has perhaps more than anyone moved black jazz into the era of "new music", is evidently avowedly opposed to the "Sharp New America" tag. "He feels this is a problem," says David Jones from Serious, "but for us he represents one of the major black composers of today and his music does demand a concert setting." Just don't, one feels bound to warn, shout out requests for "Night in Tunisia".

n John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards perform 15 July; Bill Frisell Quartet, 17 July; Henry Threadgill, 19 July at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 as part of the Southbank's 'Sharp New America' season. Booking: 0171- 960 4242