Amplification has been a given for so long now that when Barney Kessel died this spring at 80, it was startling to realize his was the first generation of electric guitarists—all the more so because in addition to alliances with Oscar Peterson and Jazz at the Philharmonic stressed by obituary writers, Kessel helped erect Phil Spector’s wall of sound as a pop session man. Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Chuck Wayne, and Kessel were teenagers presumably already smitten with Django Reinhardt when a not much older Charlie Christian gave Benny Goodman electric shocks in 1939, forever changing the rules of the game. Though Christian belongs to antiquity because he died young, he still dominates mainstream jazz guitar 60 years on. Jimmy Raney borrowed tumbling phrases from Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, and Grant Green emulated Coltrane’s sheets of sound. But their relationship to their pickups was really no different from Christian’s: Amplification was a means of making themselves heard on equal footing with drums and horns, not a musical wellspring. From Bill Justis to Jimi Hendrix, rock guitarists have shown what the instrument is capable of, and we long ago reached the point where jazz risks ignoring their technical advances at its own peril.
Hyping the Bad Plus’s These Are the Vistas in Esquire last year, Andy Langer raved that the trio stood to make jazz “relevant again.” Never mind that their power-cocktail cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded like updated Ramsey Lewis and that Langer left open the question of whether anything could make Esquire relevant again. The crisis facing jazz is real, and the gravest problem isn’t a shortage of college-age listeners. More alarming is the poor showing of Esquire‘s 40-year-old demographic, to whom most jazz sounds as fossilized as Bach. Imitating pop production techniques might be a way of appealing to these holdouts, the argument goes. Didn’t fusion teach them anything? Still, breakthroughs are always possible, even when the goal is strictly commercial, and in the absence of another Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman to lead jazz into the future, I wouldn’t mind somebody bringing it up to 1995. Guitarists would seem to be ideally positioned to lead the charge, given that theirs is an instrument already closely identified with pop.
So the news that Bill Frisell was collaborating with producer Hal Wilner and engineer Eric Liljestrand raised my expectations. But Unspeakable is both more than I hoped for and a little less. It will move no asses, that’s for sure—anything that did would be hopelessly out of character for the introspective Frisell. Although this is his most “contemporary” album by virtue of Liljestrand’s manipulations and Wilner’s sampling of ethnic and sound-library recordings, it opens deliberately recherché, with Frisell’s octave voicings and darting string arrangement honoring Wes Montgomery and Don Sebesky—the title “1968” presumably refers to the year of Montgomery’s death. (Beats me why a bouncier but otherwise very similar number that comes later on is named for the obscure beatnik comedian Del Close.) Frisell’s inventive writing for a three-piece string section featuring Jenny Scheinman’s violin, Eyvind Kang’s viola, and Hank Roberts’s cello—most effectively employed on a eulogy for the drummer D. Sharpe—reveals a talent for orchestration dormant since The Sweetest Punch, his 1998 album of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello covers. With Frisell, his rhythm section, the strings, Don Alias’s hand drums, Wilner’s turntables, and a horn section arranged by Steven Bernstein all going at once, parts of “Stringbean” and a track named for the percussionist are as coded with information—and as edgy—as Miles Davis circa Agharta and Pangaea.
For the most part, though, the samples play a complementary role not much different from that of the strings and horns. As on a conventional jazz album, Frisell’s solos are up front. Fortunately, they’re as compelling as always. “Gtr” is a standard abbreviation in jazz discographies, but the look of it evokes a rave-up—guitar with the vowels left out. Frisell’s style is all vowels, and mostly soft ones at that. Yet no other jazz guitarist has adapted rock’s sonic vocabulary to such personal ends: He uses amplification to make introspection audible. Unspeakable ends with “Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye,” an example of Frisell at his most reflective, his most hillbilly, and his most Frisell. I don’t know whether the album succeeds on its own terms, because the terms aren’t exactly clear. But it sure has its charms.
Another recent guitar album worth mentioning in this context is the Charlie Hunter Trio’s Friends Seen and Unseen—though only after dispensing with Groundtruther’s Latitude (Thirsty Ear), a messy free jam involving Hunter, Bobby Previte’s drums and real-time electronics, and guest Greg Osby’s alto. Hunter’s own CD is more inviting: lean and slyly funky, with Hunter’s two extra bass strings creating the illusion of a Hammond B3 here and there, as on the dizzyingly circular “Bonus Round.” The speed of Hunter’s chords gives drummer Derrek Phillips plenty of room to thrash around, and his paradiddles and New Orleans parade rhythms are especially bracing on the slinky “Lulu’s Crawl,” where tenorist John Ellis (who elsewhere occasionally switches to bass clarinet or flute) slap-tongues to telling effect, a fine companion to Hunter’s wah-wah. Hunter’s originals come straight out of the Cannonball Adderley and Stanley Turrentine lick book, but he voices them attractively, with plenty of clever guitar-and-saxophone unisons. Not surprisingly for a guitarist who got his start behind Michael Franti in the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and made his first big splash with a Nirvana cover, Hunter takes advantage of echo and feedback and other rock devices. But not even the staunchest conservative could deny that he plays jazz. In its uninsistent way, Friends Seen and Unseen proves both that the tried-and-true still works and that a little updating never hurts.