Nobody combines jazz and country music quite so elegantly, or as seamlessly, as guitarist Bill Frisell, who released Blues Dream, his 19th album as a bandleader, Tuesday (January 30).
Blues Dream adds a horn section consisting of Ron Miles (trumpet), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) and Billy Drewes (alto saxophone) to the country- and bluegrass-tinged New Quartet that Frisell has led for the past two years.
"The country stuff was always there, though maybe not so blatantly," Frisell said. On Blues Dream that influence is organically integrated into such beautiful, horn-embellished pieces as "Pretty Stars Were Made To Shine" (RealAudio excerpt).
The horns are neither new (he's been recording with them since 1989's Before We Were Born) nor merely background color, as "Ron Carter" (RealAudio excerpt), a tune dedicated to the journeyman bassist, demonstrates. "I take things going on in the music anyway and just orchestrate them," he said.
The Seattle musician, who celebrates his 50th birthday next month, released his first solo album, In Line, in 1983. Frisell's country influences were most apparent in his expansive harmonies and famously laconic phrasing. But in 1995, as Frisell's longtime working relationship with drummer Joey Baron and bassist Kermit Driscoll was ending, he recorded Nashville in that very city with bluegrass dobro star Jerry Douglas, Lyle Lovett bassist Viktor Krauss and other country sessioneers.
"Whatever I wrote," Frisell recalled, "Joey and Kermit were the first ones to play it. I didn't even know if I could play my own music with anybody else. It was a revelation to hook up with people from a completely different world and have it work."
For the past two years, however, Frisell's most significant collaborator has been guitar, steel guitar and mandolin player Greg Leisz, whose talent is celebrated on an eponymous Blues Dream track (RealAudio excerpt).
"My trio [with drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist Tony Scheer] was playing in Minneapolis. Greg came to hear us, and we ended up talking. He'd been playing with k.d. lang, and when I got home, I started to notice that he worked with just about everybody. So I called him up and asked him to play on Good Dog, Happy Man. It felt so good, and we've been playing a lot since then."
Even though you won't hear about it in Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary, Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building pop hits provided jazz with much of its melodic inspiration. Likewise, Frisell twists and mutates the pop and country music he listens to. These days, he says, that includes bluegrass icons, such as Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, and banjo-picking backporch folkies, such as Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb.
In addition to listening to banjo players, Frisell has also been learning from and performing with Bad Livers banjoist Danny Barnes. Frisell recorded a forthcoming album with Barnes and bassist Keith Lowe, who perform in Seattle as the Willies. Their CD will include such folk and country standards as "John Hardy" and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart."
Frisell also recorded with another old master, drummer Elvin Jones, along with bassist Dave Holland, for an as-yet-untitled album tentatively scheduled for fall release. "I never thought that would happen," he said with a laugh.
He has also written and performed music for the recent Gus Van Sant film "Finding Forrester" and Wim Wenders' "The Million Dollar Hotel," and upcoming tour plans include a week at New York's Blue Note in March and a summer tour in Europe with the New Quartet.
A new direction in Frisell's music may have been inspired during a meeting last year with Mali guitarist Boubacar Traoré. During dinner, Frisell said, "I played some little thing for Boubacar, and he jumped up and described what I'd just played as 'in the nighttime when the women and children are going to sleep.' Then he joined right in. But anybody here would have thought it was just some country stuff. I like it when the lines between types of music get smudged like that."