From the very beginning, rock 'n' roll was built upon the steely foundation of electric guitar. Audacious guitar. Grit-under-the-nails guitar. The louder, the better. God bless Chuck Berry, who not only popularized the sound, but the look: a slippery duck-walkin' strut topped by a lubed-up pompadour, with a low-slung Gibson as an accessory. Voilà: a snapshot of rock 'n' roll.
On the other hand, jazz has always been defined by pianos, trumpets and saxophones--or virtually any axe other than a Fender. Ever since talent scout John Hammond plucked 6-string guitar slinger Charlie Christian out of a dusty Oklahoma juke joint 64 years ago, the true stars of jazz guitar have twinkled few and far between.
You can count the entire cast of luminaries on your fingers. By the dawn of the '60s, aficionados were digging the cerebral harmonies of Jim Hall and the city-slick blues of Kenny Burrell. Burrell begot the R&B-inflected pickin' of Wes Montgomery and George Benson, a rare pair of jazz cats who achieved popular acclaim during the '60s and '70s. Concurrently, Englishman John McLaughlin and free-bopper Sonny Sharrock superimposed high-voltage guitar upon unruly improvisational jams. Sometimes their experiments worked, like J-Mac's ruckus-raising Mahavishnu Orchestra. Often, however, the fusion laboratory spewed out the odiferous smoke of failure. Chemistry lesson: Whether shaken or stirred, mixing jazz and rock produced volatile matter.
Now for the good news. Yeah, it's taken a while--a century or so--but jazz guitar is coming into its own. Oddly, it has attained a certain degree of validity by allowing the rejuvenating influence of other musics to seep in.
Credit for this newfound diversification goes to several 40-something survivors who emerged during the '70s, but who are still managing to break new ground. Notable on the short-list of innovators are misbehaviorists Henry Kaiser and Eugene Chadbourne, who coax musical laughter from the outer regions of the avant-garde; the ever-popular Pat Metheny, an accessible virtuoso who flips between gentle heartland folk and gooey Brazilian bossa nova, and John Scofield, a soulful soloist recently reincarnated as the darling of the jam band circuit.
But my favorite, nowadays, is Bill Frisell, the most diverse of the lot. Like Scofield, Frisell plucks the blues authoritatively. Like Metheny, he's cognizant of the taproot-deep stories of American traditional music. And--like Kaiser and Chadbourne--he's a hair weird and proud of it, with an outsider's mentality that eschews what is fashionable in favor of whatever bizarro stuff he feels like playing at that moment. Dubbed the "Mr. Rogers of guitar" by one critic because of his unassuming, whimsical manner, Friz's spectacular solos are characterized by sonic paradox: By listening to the notes, you can guess what he's feeling, but you're never certain. Enigmatic? You bet--and that's the beauty of it.
N.C.-based, multi-faceted guitarist Scott Sawyer characterizes Frisell as an innovative player "who dares to mix it up and blur the boundaries between genres; his sound palette is immense." Says Sawyer, "Although I hear some Jim Hall and B.B. King in his approach, Bill is very much his own man. He's fearless--unafraid to use space and silence within the music." Sawyer, a well-known band leader in his own right (Guitarspeak, Go There), as well as a tasteful accompanist (Ghezzi, Lois Dawson), concludes by tossing one last bouquet: "Frisell is not just a guitarist, but a musician. He does it all."
A batch of fresh CDs reveals Frisell's subtle influence among contemporary guitarists. Pete McCann's album, You Remind Me of Someone, features a well-oiled NYC-based downtown quartet, including light-fingered saxophonist Peter Epstein. McCann, picking acoustic and electric instruments, spins out his asymmetrical lines in a compelling stop-start manner. A composer with a wry sense of humor, McCann tips his cap to fellow artists: painter Jackson Pollock ("Pollock," with its drip-drop guitar), and sound painter Ornette Coleman ("Ornery," a tribute to the jazz legend). For pure emotional clout, check out the album's closer, "The Patriot," a strangely uplifting ballad that swells like an ode to a fallen gunfighter.
By comparison, Ben Monder's Excavation is a darker affair, but no less beautiful. The hair-raising juxtaposition of Theo Blackmann's vocals against Monder's ethereal guitar will remind some of those moody Nordic-blues dates by saxophonist Jan Garbarek on Germany's ECM label. Beneath the dense weave of minor melody, bassist Skuli Sverrisson and drummer Jim Black dart in and out like sonic pranksters. The effect is chilling. Credit Monder: Although the elastic, moody guitar tone is decidedly Frisell-like, his conception is strikingly original.
A more energetic date by a mile is the latest effort by freewheeling Brad Shepik, who, several years ago, could have been labeled as a virtual Frisell clone. But that's no longer the case, as Shepik continues to pilot his sound toward more exotic destinations on The Well (songlines.com). Shepik's high-steppin' camel caravan winds through North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. Lopsided, non-Western time signatures (5/4 and 19/8!) prevail, yet the rhythm section locks in as naturally as a wild pony in full gallop. Coincidentally, Shepik shares bandmates with guitarists Monder and McCann; Sverrison returns with bubbling bass in tow, as do saxophonist Epstein and drummer Michael Sarin from You Remind Me of Someone. Yet the results are totally distinct, as The Well dips into Shepik's gig bag of nifty regional hardware. In addition to standard guitar, he employs a long-necked, Turkish lute called the saz, only it's a jaunty electric saz--with Shepik's amp tweaked into overdrive.
Ironically, the only disappointing entry among recent Frisell-influenced discs is the new album by, ahem, Bill Frisell. Blues Dream (nonesuch.com) sounds like "American Gothic" gone awry, a collision between a loose-limbed string band and a quirky horn section. While the 18 tunes are freshly-penned Frisell originals, the bulk of them possess an eerily old-fashioned feel, like a sonic scrapbook discovered in somebody's attic. Indeed, the ambiance is decidedly Dream-like: Imagine a creaky back-porch country jam, or a Sunday small-town brass band concert under a gazebo--both viewed through a distorted soft-focus lens. By embracing medium-to-slow tempos, Frisell and Company swing lethargically at best--even the interplay between monster guitarists Frisell and slide maestro Greg Leisz yawns more often than yells.
But not to worry. Like another enlightened eccentric, Neil Young, Frisell has made several oddball records that cause the faithful to wince and whine. And so it goes with the good guys, those winning sonic warriors who are not afraid to flail--and fail. With Frisell, a space cowboy who changes stylistic hats with every release, next year's model will likely be a keeper.
Frisell's impact upon the world of improv is not pervasive. These splendid discs avoid his influence--and burn like the devil:
David Fiuczynki's Headless Torsos: Amandala (torsos.com). Angular, poison-dipped shards of metallic fusion meet the ghost of Hendrix.
Dave Stryker: Shades of Miles (steeplechase.dk/). Tired of Miles Davis tributes? Me too, until I heard Stryker rewind to the Live-Evil days. Boss brass, hip ethnic percussives and blues aplenty.
Jean-Paul Bourelly: Boom Bop (cityhallrecords.com). A rough-around-the-edges slice of jazz and worldbeat, co-starring hall-of-fame saxophonist Archie Shepp and Senegalese griot drummer Abdourahmane Diop.
John Scofield: Works for Me (vervemusic.com). Scofield rides a Cadillac rhythm section consisting of pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Chris McBride and drummer Billy Higgins. An old-fashioned jazz date, sans the spacey jam-band overtones.
Djalma de Andrade: Ocean Memories (sambamoon.com). Better known as Bola Sete, the late acoustic picker was the unsung hero of modern Brazilian guitar. Imagine the bossa nova, untethered from standard samba beats and shot up with mad adrenaline. That's what Sete was doing at the end of his life (1987). An astounding double-disc reissue, Ocean Memories collects his brightest moments, both wild and serene, including the legendary 1972 sessions released on John Fahey's Takoma label. Alongside Leo Kottke's essential 6 & 12-String Guitar (another Takoma classic), this is one of those mind-opening records that belongs in every home.