The course that Bill Frisell has taken since his 1997 album Nashville has proven vexing to many who were originally pulled in by the guitarist’s more straightforward jazz work with Paul Motian or his avant-squonk work with John Zorn’s Naked City. There’s no question that Frisell trained as a jazz guitarist and that he can play in the idiom, but his more recent music has veered into an area that truly defies genre, even though many try to pin him to one or another. The phrase that rears its head most frequently is “Americana”. While Frisell is working with such American genres as folk, country, blues, and jazz, he also creates music of great space and meditativeness that sometimes recalls the music of other places as well. Some maintain that Frisell isn’t doing anything very interesting or even original, citing the idiomatic folk period of Pat Metheny captured on albums such as New Chautauqua and As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls or the entire oeuvre of John Fahey.
On the surface, Frisell’s recent recordings do bear a certain resemblance to the two Metheny albums mentioned. Both artists seem to create a music that is wide open, evoking the big sky and open road of rural America. But for Metheny, it was enough to simply evoke such sounds; Frisell has immersed himself in them. Since Nashville, he has often surrounded himself with musicians steeped in the genres that he sought to incorporate into his music, from Jim Keltner, Jerry Douglas, and members of Alison Krause’s Union Station group to Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. Frisell’s unique, singing guitar sound, augmented by tape loops, has remained a shimmering constant, tying his experiments in musical mixology together. And whereas Fahey labored under a certain conception of authenticity, Frisell makes no such attempt, preferring to allow the depth of musical feeling that the musicians put into the music create its own level of authenticity. This is one reason that Frisell maddens jazz fans or indeed anyone seeking to put a label on him.
On The Intercontinentals, Frisell has surrounded himself with an international coterie of excellent musicians in an attempt to incorporate sounds and musics from around the world into his grab bag. The result is pure Frisell, yet it is tinged with an international flavor. What makes it a great album and one of Frisell’s most successful statements is that at no time does it sound like he said “hey, let’s graft some exotic international instruments onto what I’m doing.” The entire project sounds as though it grew very organically, as did such previous Frisell releases as Nashville, Blues Dream, and Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones.
Frisell has assembled an impressive crew of guests for this recording. Vinicius Cantuaria, with whom Frisell has previously recorded, provides some gorgeous guitar work (listen to the stunning interplay between Frisell and Cantuaria, topped by Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar). The sound is similar to that found on Cantuaria’s 2001 album Vinicius. On many other tracks, Cantuaria plays snare and bass drum. Also included are Malian percussionist Sidiki Camara, master of the oud and bouzouki Christos Govetas, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, and violinist Jenny Scheinman.
Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore’s spirit hangs over the proceedings, as the disc opens with a Frisell composition in his honor (“Boubacar”) and the group takes on Boubacar’s Malian blues “Baba Drame”. It’s amazing how much this composition has in common with American blues, and Frisell and his associates certainly emphasize these common elements. Camara employs calabsh, djembe, shaker, and cymbals, but you could easily think, if you heard this on a scratchy vinyl recording, that it was an old Appalachian folk song accompanied by tin cans and washboards.
Another standout track is the group’s interpretation of Gilberto Gil’s “Procissao” which opens with deeply foreboding, sustained bass notes, followed by rhythmic interplay between violin and guitar before Frisell begins to play bluesy fills, at which point Govetas bursts in with the Portuguese lyrics. The whole thing continues to build throughout its six plus minute length, climaxing in some energetic, psuedo-bottleneck antics. The very next track, the traditional “The Young Monk” finds Frisell’s nylon string guitar and Govetas’s oud melding perfectly. It’s Frisell’s secret formula — a group sound where various instruments rise and fall in the listener’s attention, with little regard for traditional notions of “solo” and “ensemble”. In this respect, Frisell is continuing to work with one of the great ideas brought forth in modern jazz: “no one solos/everyone solos”. Miles Davis used it on recordings such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and it was the reason that Weather Report never sounded much like any other so-called “fusion” band.
Frisell may not be playing what many jazz fans consider jazz, nor is he playing “world” music with any claims to authentically reproducing the music of a specific region. The whole point of Frisell’s exercise is that he is capable of combining the sounds and textures of other musical forms into something new and yet is able to stamp it with the unmistakable Bill Frisell “brand”. And he is able to do all of that while creating music that is simultaneously adventurous, beautiful, and full of depth. That, kids, is exactly what being a musician is all about.