ROCK / Double booking: What's a nice jazz guitarist like Bill Frisell doing with a klezmer clarinettist, asks Jason Nisse

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The Independent Culture
BILL plays the guitar. People used to think of him as the Jimi Hendrix of jazz, but in recent years he's developed an individual style with a certain stillness in its tone (though he can thrash it up, as John Zorn will tell you). But his first instrument was the clarinet, which he used to play in his high school band in Denver, Colorado before he discovered it was cooler to have a guitar. He has a fondness for the instrument now, though in his teens he was only too glad to drop it.

Don plays the clarinet. Despite being black and from the Bronx, he is best known for his interpretations of Jewish klezmer music, which he discovered at the New England Conservatory of Music. He also plays jazz and classical music, and wants to record an album of Stephen Sondheim songs. Unlike many other clarinet players in jazz, he is true to his instrument and is rarely tempted by the desire to pick up a tenor sax, though he was spotted with a baritone sax in a big band not so long ago. Don does not generally like the guitar as an instrument, though he likes Bill because Bill explores tonal possibilities other guitarists simply cannot reach.

The coming together of Bill Frisell and Don Byron promises to be one of the most interesting collaborations of recent years. Anyone familiar with Frisell's output - on his own records and those of artists as diverse as Paul Motian, John Zorn and John Scofield - knows that he has been pushing the envelope of what you can do with the harmonics of a guitar. Critics might say that he is more interested in the sound than the tune, and that this can make his records sound pretty bland. By joining forces with Byron, whose music shows a versatility and a zest for life, he may be able to get the best of both worlds.

That's what Hal Willner thought when he used them on his critically praised Charlie Mingus tribute, Weird Nightmare. And it's what Byron thought too, when he asked Frisell to play on his jazz debut Tuskegee Experiments. Now Frisell is trying the concept out, on his new album Have A Little Faith and in a short tour in the UK.

Both players were deeply involved in the New York jazz scene, but Frisell and Byron first met about five years ago in Austria. Frisell had just flown to Vienna from New York for a concert; jet-lagged, he checked into his hotel room.

'As I tried to take a nap, I could hear this guy in the next room playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto,' Frisell recollects. 'He then moved onto bebop and went through the whole history of music in one session. I really wanted to know, who was this guy?' Frisell introduced himself, and they kept in touch, though they didn't play together until Hal Willner decided it would be a good idea.

The clarinet is not exactly a popular instrument in jazz these days. Last year Jimmy Giuffre delighted British audiences with one, and David Murray occasionally shows his versatility with a bass clarinet which has a worrying resemblance to a didgeridoo. But the clarinet is rarely found outside ragtime bands and most reed players who play jazz have given it up in favour of the sax.

Byron argues that a lot of this has to do with racism. 'Many, many of the top sax players were clarinet majors in college, but they would not be accepted into the top orchestras,' he says. 'They can get some gigs on Broadway but not in the orchestras. There isn't, and there never will be, a shortage of black musicians for orchestral jobs. But you find most black clarinet players pick up the sax or flute and go down that route.'

Byron never went that way. But then again, his discovery of klezmer music, where the music is traditionally led by the clarinet over a rhythm created by other horn instruments, has meant he's never needed to stray to find work.

At the New England Conservatory, a tutor wanted to put together a klezmer band and handed around klezmer records - the most notable being Mickey Katz's seminal 1950s record Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Brisses (a bris is a ritual circumcision) - for the band to learn.

For a clarinettist it was wonderful music, full of drama and of wild improvisations, and despite the fact that Byron grew up in quite a Jewish neighbourhood, it was the first time that he had come across klezmer.

The reaction, though, among traditional klezmer musicians was not encouraging. They closed ranks against Byron and his band, which was called The Music of Micky Katz. 'Ultimately it was a threat to the small circle of people that someone who was not Jewish, and was not even white, was playing the music.'

One of the main objections was that Byron upset the traditional arrangements of klezmer. The musicians on the scene were used to playing old East European recordings note for note. But Byron argues that these recordings represented only one day in the particular musicians' lives and that the day before, or the day after, they might have played a completely different arrangement.

He maintains that klezmer is a totally different strand of music from jazz, despite similarities arising from the fact that both are based on improvisation. But a keen ear can catch a few hints of the ghetto (Lublin rather than Harlem) on Tuskegee Experiments, not least on the haunting In Memoriam: Uncle Dan.

Frisell has a history of incorporating diffuse elements and instruments into his music too (his current band features Guy Klucevsek on accordion) and in recent years has tried to make his guitar perform like a horn. 'Just because of my background on the instrument, I have an understanding of the clarinet,' he says. 'With Don we found that musically we had quite a strong connection.' Have A Little Faith is essentially a tribute to musicians and composers who have had an influence on his music. These range from modern American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives through Sonny Rollins and Muddy Waters to John Hiatt and Bob Dylan (with an over-reverential version of 'Just Like A Woman').

But the piece that stands out is a 10- minute version of Madonna's Live To Tell which almost wipes out any memories of the lead-footed original. It's a strange choice and comes out of another of Frisell's lonely evenings in hotel rooms. 'There was this movie, At Close Range, on the TV and I saw it and it really got to me. The song was in the movie and it touched me. And so when I hear it I get the emotional resonance I got from the movie.'

Which only goes to show that there's plenty more for a musician to do in a hotel room than trash it and throw the television out of the window.

For this week's tour dates see Gig Guide opposite and free CD offer at top of the Going Out column. Both 'Tuskegee Experiments' and 'Have A Little Faith' are released by Elektra Nonesuch Records.

(Photograph omitted)