Bill Frisell – A new intersection at the crossroads
“In the original versions of those old country songs,” Holcomb notes, “there are interesting timbral and rhythmic things that got cleaned up in subsequent versions. The later, more familiar versions had an antiseptic, sanitized quality. All the elements were there, but the dirt’s not there, and the dirt is what provides the personality. Those quirky things are invitations to improvisation. And by improvising on them, you open them up again.”
“If you spread music out on a continuum,” suggests Barnes, “on the far right would be the totally archaic, modal banjo/fiddle tunes from the 1700s, and on the far left would be avant-garde jazz. Commercial music combines things on the continuum that are close to each other in the middle. Like the Eagles were not that rock and not that country, so it was an easy combination.
“The safe thing is to combine adjacent musics, but to me it’s more interesting to leapfrog across styles, to reach further and draw from Dock Boggs instead of Gram Parsons, from Sonny Sharrock instead of Eric Clapton.”
“What fascinates me about all this stuff is trying to go backwards and find where things were the same,” Frisell muses. “Because if you go back far enough, country is not all that different from jazz or soul or whatever. I’m trying to find those places where it intersects.”
Frisell’s latest album, The Willies (also on Nonesuch), is performed entirely by Frisell, Barnes and Lowe. Amid the guitarist’s nine original country-flavored compositions are such old-time folk songs as “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Goodnight Irene”. Yet the trio applies the theme-and-variation approach of jazz to these unlikely materials as if they were working with Gershwin and Ellington melodies.
The Carter Family’s “John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man” is slowed down and stretched out until the sense of desperation becomes acute. And when Frisell starts dropping substitute chords into the mix, the atmosphere becomes as ominous as a morning fog with a killer on the loose. The version of Dock Boggs’ “Sugar Baby” finds Frisell playing the vocal line on electric guitar against Barnes’ bouncy banjo riff. But as the two parts diverge, the tune sounds less like Boggs and more like John McLaughlin playing with Bela Fleck.
“I made this record, because I wanted to document my relationship with Danny Barnes,” Frisell says. “A few years ago, when I was discovering all this music for the first time, I went to hear Del McCoury at this Seattle club, and Danny was the opening act. It flipped me out to hear him, because he was the real deal.
“I tracked down his phone number and called him up and asked if I could take some lessons. He didn’t know who I was; as far as he was concerned, I was just some guy who showed up at his house. Some of the songs we played that first day, like ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and ‘Cluck Old Hen’, ended up on the record.”
“In all honesty, I didn’t know much about Bill’s music when he first called,” Barnes admits. “He said, ‘My name is Bill. Can I take a guitar lesson?’ I said, ‘I don’t really give lessons, but you can come over and jam if you want.’ He said he had a band and had made records, so I said ‘Well, where do you play in New York?’ because I thought that would give me an idea of what level he was on. He said, ‘The Village Vanguard,’ and I said, ‘Wait a minute, who is this?’
“We became friends. I’d go over to Seattle and we’d eat and go look at guitars. Or he’d come over here to Port Townsend, and we’d play all day while it rained. He was already stewing over this idea of weaving his own stuff in and around a bed of traditional music, and I helped him learn that repertoire.
“What I got from him was the value of writing music down. Looking at his manuscripts was like looking at the blueprints. It was an insight into how someone’s brain works.”
“Gradually we just started playing together a lot,” Frisell continues. “It was cool, because he wanted to check out what I was doing, and I wanted to learn what he was doing. He was open to everything, even though he grew up in a completely different way with music than I did, playing with all these old fiddler guys and singing these old gospel songs in church.”
Barnes, for his part, formed a group called Danny Barnes & Thee Old Codgers, a trio featuring Lowe and ex-Goose Creek Symphony fiddler Jon Parry. Their 2001 album Things I Done Wrong (Terminus) was produced by Horvitz and featured guest appearances by Horvitz and Frisell. It’s very much an old-time string-band project; even Barnes’ eight original songs borrow themes, language and musical motifs from Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music. But the solos are more subtle, the harmonies more sophisticated and the tonalities darker than your usual old-time effort, reflecting Barnes’ experience in Frisell’s band.
“When I was out on the road with Bill,” Barnes says, “we were playing with jazz artists like Henry Threadgill and Dave Holland. It was a wonderful experience, because it opened me up to a lot of possibilities, not so much for dexterity as for rhythms and harmonies. I realized that jazz players have the facility to take the weirdness of old-time songs even further.
“It’s helpful to have technique, to look at a piece of music and know what’s going on, to be able to play in E-flat,” he continues. “It’s great to be around musicians who have the chops to do whatever you want. I’ve been in bands where I’ve said, ‘This song has to be in A-flat,’ and guys say, ‘I don’t want to play in that key because it’s too hard.’ Technique is not the goal, but it can be a means to an end.