In Praise of Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and the Graceful Despair of Marc Ribot


Along with bagels, the Times, and Christiane Amanpour, Sunday morning around my bunkhouse means a Gene Autry movie. As a kid glued to the screen in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I never cottoned to his ’40s box-office rival, Roy Rogers; looking back, I think I preferred Autry simply because he was the better singer—more jazz-influenced, though I couldn’t tell that then. Years after the fact, ’60s westerns like Bonanza and Big Valley were dubbed “property” Westerns. But before them came what I think of as “prop” Westerns, in the sense that people refer to prop comics—think of Bat Masterson and his cane, The Rifleman and his rapid-load Winchester, Lash LaRue and his bullwhip. The prop could be a marshal’s badge, or even, in the case of Have Gun—Will Travel, a business card. Autry hardly ever reached for his holster, relying instead on verbal persuasion or his fists in a fair fight. But given his charming way with a song, I’m tempted to say his prop was a guitar.

A guitar soon became everyone’s favorite prop, in fact, ubiquitous and iconic long before Elvis made it as indispensable a rock ‘n’ roll accessory as a curled upper lip, to this day conveying a sense of the open range even in as crowded and rushed a musical setting as bebop. Just as it makes sense that Charlie Christian was from Oklahoma by way of Texas, so it does that Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, the first guitarists to realize the rural implications embedded in early Ornette Coleman, are from Missouri and Colorado, respectively. When Frisell began his recording career in the early ’80s, he was mistaken by many (including me, I confess) as a Metheny wannabe. Even now, some confusion persists regarding Frisell’s exact place in jazz, for which you can blame the success of his 1997 CD Nashville. Even with a group including dobro or pedal steel, his music is less redolent of bluegrass than sagebrush—less country than western, by which I mean the Old West that all of us, the guitarist himself included, know only from movies and television.

I mean, what the hell do you think all those countrypolitan “hat” acts are doing, if not playing cowboy? So is Frisell, only not sartorially—and not superficially. Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz), which introduces his new trio with Eyvind Kang on violin and Rudy Royston on drums, finds the leader encouraging a greater degree of group interaction than usual, and making only sparing use of loops and other electronic devices. But in every way that matters, it’s typical Frisell—as lyrical in approach as it is eclectic in outlook, touching on Stephen Foster, Blind Willie Johnson, Benny Goodman, the Carter Family, and Little Anthony and the Imperials, together with its characteristically wounding originals. Both an overly syncopated “Goin’ Out of My Head” and a mock-genteel “Tea for Two” are borderline cute, as is Goodman’s “Benny’s Bugle,” despite Royston’s spry evocation of Gene Krupa on toms. But everywhere else, Frisell and Kang’s frequent role reversals as they shift from solo to accompaniment are as exciting as they are seamless, and things reach a peak on Frisell’s own “All We Can Do,” where he and Kang take turns providing each other with backdrops that sound orchestral, belying the spartan instrumentation.

By now, Frisell’s name evokes a jazz Americana in which past, present, and future muse upon one another (minus the jazz, you could substitute the name Fahey), and to the extent that his shadow looms over Charlie Hunter’s Public Domain (download-only via Reap and Sow), Nels Cline’s Dirty Baby (Cryptogramaphone), and even Marc Ribot’s down-in-the-mouth near-masterpiece Silent Movies (Pi), it’s more a question of context than of direct influence. Public Domain is pure Americana—a fuzztoned program of campfire, Victrola, and player-piano favorites (“15 Miles on the Erie Canal,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and the like) with brief liner notes by the performer’s grandfather, no less. It’s a charming concept that quickly wears thin, largely due to the hiccupping syncopation, probably meant to suggest ragtime guitar, that Hunter applies to each number, regardless of tempo and without relief. But his down-and-dirty “St. Louis Blues” is terrific, and I’ll be there should he ever see fit to give this sort of material another try.

Though best known now as a member of Wilco, Cline has been a regular on L.A.’s free-jazz scene for decades. In a way, the David Breskin–produced Dirty Baby—two CDs packaged with work by the iconic Southern California pop artist Ed Ruscha—is a follow-up to Richter 858, a 2002 Breskin project pairing Frisell with Gerhard Richter. Dirty Baby‘s first disc features a nine-piece electro-acoustic ensemble playing an extended, six-movement piece intended as a musical analogue to Ruscha’s photograph-like “Silhouette” paintings (themselves apparently meant to trace America’s evolution from pastoral to post-industrial). The result comes across like the score to a film that never quite stays in focus, except for a bit of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone in the second movement. The second disk, featuring 33 Zappa-like snippets (a few briefer than a minute) keyed to Ruscha’s “Cityscapes” or “censor strips,” in which the hostile words in their titles are blotted out, is a frustrating collage of intriguing ideas that deserved fuller exposition.

Because Ribot is a member of John Zorn’s downtown inner circle and a formidable deconstructionist in his own right, you look for irony in everything he does. But there’s no irony to be found on his Silent Movies, nor is it missed. Of the films invoked, Chaplin’s The Kid is the only actual silent; the others are obscure recent independents, or imaginary. But the resemblance to Frisell, who has scored Go West and other Buster Keaton films, isn’t just in the idea of communicating in real time with a work fixed in the past; it’s also in the sense of isolation that both guitarists can suggest when playing unaccompanied—and this is one area in which I think Ribot holds the upper hand.

I hope I’m not scaring anyone away by reporting that the mood throughout Silent Movies is so bleak that the grace of Ribot’s touch and the ringing beauty of his tone amount to palliatives against despair. There’s a strong hint of the mythic Old West even on the album’s lone non-original, the Édith Piaf–associated “Sous le ciel de Paris,” (familiar here as “Under Paris Skies”), a pop chanson with quick nods to Bach and Django Reinhardt in Ribot’s interpretation. “Delancey Waltz” is a danse macabre, and a Spanish-flavored piece called “Radio” is all the more haunting for sounding as if it’s coming through an old tube amplifier (indeed, it might be). Keefus Ciancia provides chilly electronic “soundscapes” to introduce a few tracks, and far from distractions, these intensify our perception of the guitarist as a man alone. Ribot channels Leone without going all Morricone on us. The image you come away with is that of the hero in a revisionist Western facing a situation in which he knows his blood or someone else’s will be spilled, and his conscience tested even more severely than his courage. You also come away wondering why Ribot isn’t as widely celebrated as Frisell. Don’t tell me contemporary jazz has room for only one high-plains drifter.

This has been a banner year for left-of-mainstream guitarists on small labels, and near the top of the list, along with Silent Movies and Beautiful Dreamers, is Mary Halvorson’s Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12), on which the big news is her emergence as a composer in whose scheme of things composition bears the same relationship to improvisation as tension does to release (like Henry Threadgill, in other words, who also springs to mind during Jon Irabagon’s coiled alto solos). I can also recommend two new releases by the unsung veteran Joe Morris: Tooth and Nail (Clean Feed), an album of freely improvised idioglossia with Nate Wooley’s trumpet; and the more structured, hivelike Camera (ESP), with cello and violin joining Morris and drummer Luther Gray.

Finally, there’s I Never Meta Guitar (Clean Feed), an anthology on which 16 individual performers—including Halvorson, Cline, Brandon Ross, Jeff Parker, Scott Fields, Henry Kaiser, Noël Akchoté, Sharp himself, and a number of Europeans whose names are new to me—are given free reign. My own taste is for the few relatively conventional tracks here, like Cline’s soft-spoken “Study for Hairpin and Hatbox” and Michael Gregory’s roaring “Blue Blue.” But those of you more captivated by noise than I can rest assured of hearing sounds undreamed of by Gene Autry, Elvis, or even Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot.