Seems like ages since Bill Frisell was Downtown’s hometown guitar god, the main man of Don Byron and John Zorn. Frissell has traveled so far from New York, musically and geographically, that old Knit groupies are rank strangers to him now. For 10-odd years he’s been fusing an American chamber music from native stuffs (Ives, Muddy Waters, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”),à la Aaron Copland. Then life imitated art: after scoring Buster Keaton’s Go West, he took leave of the archipelago, lighting out for the far rim of the mainland.
Seattle isn’t Memphis, but it isn’t New York, either. What Frissell brought back East on Saturday was The Willies, minimalist bluegrass jazz in the vein of his ’97 Nashville— this hybrid went by “Newgrass” in the ’70s. Banjo runs by Danny Barnes burst out of the soundscape with jaw-dropping chops and out harmonics, bouncing off the velvety guitar processing and toneful fiddle gestures. The arrangements are sharp as ever; the compositions are needing a film, possibly by Ken Burns, to provide the drama that motivated This Land andQuartet in the mid ’90s. Frissell has forgotten that what makes attachment to place compelling is not an “authentic” mood but the nostalgic artifice involved in depicting the aching gap between desire and choice. The inventors of Kentucky bluegrass lived in Indiana’s industrial belt. Muddy Waters sang “I Feel Like Going Home,” not “Here I Am at Home”: are we really supposed to think he’s about to catch a Delta-bound train? The Willies’ spare, spacious lines reinvent down-home music not via Copland this time, but via Terry Riley. This is a good idea, advanced of late more rigorously by Chicago’s Town and Country, and some years ago by upstate New York’s Horseflies, authors of “Who Throwed Lye on My Dog.” Frissell, though, had more to say about home when he didn’t live there.