Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Heading South

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  For Bill Frisell, Nashville seemed like the most exotic place he could imagine recording an album. "It was like another world to me," the modern jazz guitarist says. "Considering the circles I travel in, and the things I've done in the past, it might as well have been Calcutta. It was that strange to me, yet it's also one of those cities that has such a legend built around it. Like Calcutta, just saying 'Nashville' creates certain images and associations."

An executive from Nonesuch Records introduced the idea to him during a lunch meeting. The two talked about how Frisell's music had been evolving from the noisy skronk of the downtown New York crowd toward a more folk-based sound that incorporated the pastoral motifs of Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and Stephen Foster. Even though this more tuneful bent had always been present in Frisell's music, especially in his early to mid-'80s instrumental albums, it had gotten buried when he started recording with such New York avant-garde stalwarts as John Zorn and Ronald Shannon Jackson.

In the years since his move from New York to Seattle, Frisell's playing has become simpler and less reliant on electronic effects--his 1996 Quartet album featured tuba, trumpet, and violin. His compositions have drawn increasingly upon a dreamy yet fractured style clearly inspired by folk and heartland themes. Even so, when the Nonesuch executive asked one of the greatest living jazz guitarists if he had ever considered recording an album in Nashville, Frisell was astounded--and intrigued. The very strangeness of the idea convinced him to give it a try.

"I had never imagined doing something like that," Frisell says. "It was kind of a frightening proposition because I didn't know anyone there. But that also made it all the more exciting and, in the end, rewarding."

The decision also inspired him to create some of the most accessible and most beautiful music of his career, and without compromising his unique sound or his creativity. Nashville, released earlier this year, is Frisell's airiest and most languid album since his 1982 ECM Records debut, In Line. Working with a select group of acoustic musicians, most of them nurtured in bluegrass and mountain music, Frisell ended up with a strong yet subtle collection that relies more on atmosphere than on movement or noise. It's the most doggedly roots-based music of his career, yet it maintains the elongated melodies, loping rhythms, and decidedly bent combination of blues, country, folk, and classical stylings that have become his trademark.

Following the lunch meeting, Nonesuch Records put Frisell in touch with Kyle Lehning, head of Asylum Records in Nashville. Lehning introduced Frisell to Dobro specialist Jerry Douglas, and from there the pair assembled a band that featured bassist Viktor Krauss of Lyle Lovett's band and banjo player Ron Block and mandolinist Adam Steffey of Alison Krauss & Union Station. Pat Bergeson sat in on harmonica for two songs, and Robin Holcomb added sweet, pastoral vocals on the album's three covers: Neil Young's "One of These Days," Hazel Dickens' "Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands," and Skeeter Davis' 1963 crossover hit, "The End of the World."

Holcomb's husband, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, produced the collection. Frisell had known the couple since his days in the New York musical underground, so working with them put him in touch with some familiar faces while living as a stranger in a strange land. Additional support came from engineer Roger Moutenot, another old ally. Moutenot, now a Nashville resident, had engineered Frisell's outstanding 1991 album, Where in the World?, which Horvitz produced.

Working with Douglas, Krauss, Block, and Steffey provided Frisell with what he describes as a mind-expanding experience. "I can't begin to tell you what an adrenaline shot it was," the soft-spoken guitarist says. "I've done a lot of things in the past where I've gone into the studio with musicians I didn't know. And I've put myself in some foreign situations before. But, like I said, this was perhaps the most unusual thing I had tried."

Meeting of musicians Bill Frisell, who found Nashville such a likable place that he decided to return for a live date this coming week. Photo by Jacques Lowe.
Right from the start, Frisell says, he felt like he'd made the right choice. He praises the Nashville musicians for how quick and how intuitive they were with his music. "I'm not very verbal, especially when it comes to playing music," says Frisell, who is indeed given to long pauses as he searches for the right words. "I'm not a leader in the sense that I tell other musicians what to play. I'll bring in a tune, we'll start to play, and it will work or not. The only way I lead is by putting out a vibe in a certain way with what I play, and I try to steer the music that way. I'm not great about telling people what I want."

This method allowed everyone involved to make their own contributions, Frisell says. Moreover, his small Nashville band provided him with plenty of inspiration, and the sound quickly took a shape of its own. Though the compositions were tightly structured, everyone added their own improvisational parts. "I usually find that, with music and good musicians, if you forget about labels and categories and just come together and play, it will work," he says. "I'd never played in that kind of context before. I'd never played with a banjo or a mandolin or a Dobro. But I will be doing it again, in some way or fashion. It was a great experience."

In jazz circles, the response to Nashville has largely been positive; the record received glowing reviews in Jazziz and Downbeat magazines. But there have also been some vehemently negative reactions from longtime fans. Mistaking the gentler dynamics of the album as a stab at commercialism, one Seattle reviewer blasted the guitarist for selling out and going mainstream. "There have been those who clearly didn't get it," Frisell says, his voice more puzzled than angry. "In my mind, this was the most adventurous thing I could do. I really stepped out of my normal scene and challenged myself by going into a completely new situation."

Since making the album, Frisell has been studying bluegrass music on his own, even taking lessons and working it into his daily practice sessions. Along the way, he has come to admire greatly the discipline and skills of the musicians who have mastered the style. "I realize that, in this lifetime, it's not going to happen for me," he says with a laugh. "I feel like it's too late for me. I should have started when I was 5 years old. But I didn't go to Nashville trying to play in that style, and I'm glad I didn't. I feel like we came out with more of a meeting of different minds. And it's really got me fired up about my instrument. I'm going to keep working in this direction and see where it goes."

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