Frisell says that in some ways, it's born of his limitations. "I often hear this thing in my head that I can't fully articulate, but I'll try to imply as much as I can of it. Like, the sound of a huge orchestra could turn into a single chord."
In the last few years, modern jazz has widened its parameters to include pieces by everyone from Radiohead to Rufus Wainwright. Many of these choices take their cues from a groundbreaking Frisell disc from the mid-'90s, Have a Little Faith. It's there that the guitarist initially addressed several of his whims on a single program, stacking Madonna next to Sousa next to Muddy Waters next to John Hiatt. He says there was a definite feeling of liberation while sculpting the album.
Beautiful Dreamer (and, indeed, several of his records) furthers that broad perspective. It's not often you find Benny Goodman tunes working in cahoots with Carter Family staples, but Frisell's purview accounts for each with equal weight. And there's no nudging or winking in the air when Stephen Foster's title tune or "Tea For Two" gets the trio's treatment. The guitarist is usually looking for poignancy or frolic.
"I don't want anyone to think I'm making fun of those tunes," he says. "It's just that I'm now really comfortable with stuff that I thought was a little corny years ago. Being a jazz guy and having to be super-hip . . . man, it takes years to shake that off and just be honest. I knew I had to be true to the music I really loved, like letting the Beatles be in there. There's no denying it: I love Burt Bacharach, and lots of other stuff from my childhood.
"When I lived in Colorado I took lessons from Johnny Smith. At the time I wanted to be the cool junkie bebop guy, and to some degree I thought he was a bit schmaltzy. Now that I'm older, it's like, 'Oh boy, if I could only go back and pay more attention to what he was teaching me.' He was doing stuff 60 years ago I'm just barely starting to understand now. And he was even doing tunes I'm into, like 'Shenandoah.' I didn't understand it all back then."
Waxing quaint has become a Frisell forte. Absorbing and interpreting everything from "Pretty Polly" to "You Are My Sunshine" to "A Change Is Gonna Come," he has shined a spotlight on the dreamy side of an essentially American sound, a place where Aaron Copland and Hank Williams coincide. Even when it's aggressive, this music teems with grace, and maybe a bit of deception.
The string quartet material on the recent Sign of Life (Savoy) seems simple; indeed, "Friend of Mine" has the feel of an old-fashioned parlor waltz. But by the time violinist Jenny Scheinman starts to head for the hills, it becomes obvious Frisell has written lots of elbow room into the tune. It's not a ruse exactly, but you could call it a neat trick. DownBeat magazine recently deemed the album "sneakily substantive."
This kind of chemistry drives Frisell's artistic impact. These days he plots a course that allows him to stress melody while wading into some keen interplay. But he says there are miles to go before he gets everything right. The Dreamers have been attempting John Coltrane's rather intricate "26-20" at many of their recent gigs, but it always turns out a bit shy of what they want it to be.