In Robert Reisner's biographical scrapbook, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker
(Quartet Books, 1988), one of the contributors tells how Parker, with a saxophone strung round his neck and a gorilla on his back, employed a ruse to clear a Manhattan nightclub of his fans, in order to facilitate the entrance of others waiting in line outside. (Parker was taking a percentage of each ticket sale, so the greater the club's throughput, the greater his take for the night). Every half an hour or so, he'd stop playing the bop classics the audience had come to hear and break into some "corny" country and western tune. The ploy worked like an enema on a water buffalo, rapidly emptying the club of dozens of fans, duly replaced by other paying customers.
In his liner notes to The Best of Bill Frisell: Vol. 1 - Folk Songs, the singer (and occasional song writing collaborator with Frisell), Elvis Costello writes: "We now live in a time where I believe we all hear very well beyond the old stop-signs and signposts of 'jazz' and 'folk.'" Beyond the circle of listeners likely to enjoy this particular compilation by guitarist Frisellin some bottle-throwing redneck music bar in Texas, for instance, late on a Friday nightCostello is being overly optimistic. But times have certainly changed, and if you are still reading this review, you'll probably agree with him, up to a point.
The development is, of course, to be welcomed. For in the right hands, like Frisell's, country music takes on a new life, one that is irony-free and respectful of the genre's rich guitar playing and song writing traditions.
The Best of Bill Frisell: Vol. 1 - Folk Songs chronicles Frisell's deepening love of country musicold time, bluegrass, blues and other Americanaover eight albums recorded for Nonesuch between 1990 and 2002. Only six of the 15 tracks are treatments of existing country songs, the others having been written by Frisell as acts of loving homage to the genre. And less than half of them feature country colorings by banjo, dobro or pedal steel guitar (there's no mandolin at all), the emphasis remaining pretty firmly on Frisell's guitars throughout. But all the source material is definitively "country," and Frisell's improvisations are as much country as they are jazz. His airy and atmospheric playing is beautiful beyond category, an eloquent denial of stereotypes. Ultimately, as the bandleader and composer Duke Ellington famously said: "It's all just music."
Among the treasures is the traditional song "Shenandoah," which Frisell has dedicated to the guitarist Johnny Smith, creator of one of the most gorgeous electric guitar albums everMoonlight In Vermont (Roulette), a collection of singles made with saxophonist Stan Getz in 1952but who is still generally uncelebrated. (Even the rhapsodic Swiss guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, when spoken to by AAJ in 2005, professed never to have heard of him).
Maybe The Best of Bill Frisell: Vol. 1 - Folk Songs will do something to lift Smith's contribution out of obscurity. But even if it doesn't, it's a thing of rare joy and beauty.
Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loop (5); Danny Barnes: banjo (3, 14); Jerry Douglas: dobro (4, 11); Greg Leisz: dobro (13), pedal steel guitar (5, 15); Ry Cooder: electric and Ripley guitar (8); Wayne Horvitz: organ (5, 15); Viktor Krauss: bass (2, 4, 5, 7-9, 11, 15); Keith Lowe: bass (3, 14 ); Kermit Driscoll: bass (10); David Pitch: bass (13); Jim Keltner: drums (2, 5, 8, 9), percussion (7, 15); Joey Baron: drums (10); Kenny Wollesen: drums (13).