The Gone trio is coming. Bill Frisell is bringing to town the heavy-freight band from his latest CD, Gone, Just Like a Train, and anyone with a feeling for the guitar, 20th-century American music, or Nestlé Quik should be there.
In the last several years, guitarist Frisell has been drawing back from his slashing, disorienting avant-jazz attacks and taking a more rootsy approach, heavy with folk sentiment. Most of his echo effects and volume pedals laid aside, Frisell now favors a purer sound of pick and strum (with the occasional ebullient foray into garage-rock distortion).
Bill Frisell Trio
Museum of History & Industry
Friday, March 27
Frisell says his ears are returning to early blues and old-timey Kentucky plucking. "It seems like every record I buy now is some old Smithsonian thing. It's driving my family crazy." Over tea at a Wedgwood bakery near his house, Frisell's conversation matches his playing, with frequent pauses for consideration. "It's not that I want to re-create that stuff. It just strengthens the foundation of what I want to reach for."
Breaking away from his longtime allies in the downtown NYC-centered crowd, Frisell has put together a trio whose members come from a different musical world. Bassist Viktor Krauss, a Nashville stalwart and the brother of bluegrass star Allison Krauss, had never even heard of Frisell (and vice versa) when they first recorded together a couple of years ago. Jim Keltner is a giant among LA studio drummers who has backed up an assortment of white guitar gods, including Eric Clapton, the Traveling Wilburys, and John Hiatt.
With the new trio, there's not quite the level of frenetic group play that marked Frisell's 10 years of trio work with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. "It's more like that," Frisell says, applying gentle pressure to my shoulder, "rather than like a boxing match. The tension's still there, the listening's still happening, but it's not this real conversational thing." The guitarist is much more out front, with Krauss especially playing the stolid supporter. Says Frisell: "He's happy to just lay into one thing for a half an hour," which fits the loping, circular bass lines that undergird many Frisell tunes.
Drummer Jim Keltner is Frisell's subtle foil. There's "something raggedy, a little raw" about him, the guitarist observes. "He's not the stereotypical slick studio drummer." On Gone, Keltner's playing is beautifully, quietly off, with a loose-limbed, slovenly kind of grooving that can occasionally erupt into something cutting and sharp. He'll turn the beat around in sly, understated ways. He employs several different snare drums, which makes every backbeat unexpected—sometimes a crack, sometimes a flutter.
While Gone is jazz-like in its improvisational approach, the harmonies and melody lines evoke almost everything but—from doo-wop funk to country lullabies to noirish secret-agent sounds. "We're not getting into intricate, complicated things. It's more like song-form music," says Frisell. When the trio played New York recently, it was booked at the folkie-rock venue the Bottom Line, not the Knitting Factory.
Like the Train of the CD title, Frisell's playing is purposefully not quite there, evoking genres and licks and half-conscious musical memories (on "Egg Radio," I hear the old jingle "You can't/Drink it slow/If it's Quik") without fully embracing any of them. Yet you never feel like Frisell is caught up in some kind of self-referential experimentation that is closed to the rest of us. His music is always humane, and, like the man himself, carries a spirit of personal vulnerability and openness to beauty.