Is Bill Frisell A 'Post-Americana' Artist?

Cover of Bill Frisell, 'Disfarmer.'

Cover art to Bill Frisell's Disfarmer. Photo Credit: courtesy of Nonesuch Records. hide caption

itoggle caption Photo Credit: courtesy of Nonesuch Records.

First of all, this is about guitarist Bill Frisell's new album, which you can stream in its entirety at NPR Music — Exclusive First Listen: Bill Frisell, 'Disfarmer'. Imagine that: a full album preview for a jazz record.

Behind the scenes a 'lil bit. I enjoyed the record, but this wasn't my idea; Bob Boilen (of All Songs Considered) really loved it, and suggested it as part of our Exclusive First Listen full album preview series last Thursday. The fine folks at Nonesuch (where I once interned) were happy with the idea, and we quickly came through with the OK. I wrote some words about the project, and Mike Katzif came through with the production work. (Plus, Claire O'Neill over at NPR's The Picture Show blog, which you should all bookmark now if you haven't already, put together this photo gallery of the gripping images which inspired the record.)

The story behind the album, by the way, is also noteworthy. Eccentric, reclusive photographer who disowned his family of farmers runs a portrait studio in his rural Arkansas town in the early 20th century. Photos are rediscovered, exhibited, eventually shown to Bill Frisell. He creates a multimedia slideshow + soundtrack, the latter of which is, again, available for listening here.

Disfarmer Portrait


Kids will be kids. Photo Credit: Mike Disfarmer/courtesy of Peter A. Miller

But let's talk terminology.

In my description of the album, I used a term which may look like flashy but ultimately meaningless reviewer-speak: "post-Americana." In fact, I mulled it over carefully, and think it applies to a number of Frisell's solo projects inspired by older roots music: Have A Little Faith, Good Dog, Happy Man, The Willies. I don't follow his music that obsessively, but reviews seem to indicate that Nashville, This Land, Blues Dream, parts of East/West or History, Mystery and probably a few more recordings might also fit the bill. Not nearly all his musical output, of course, can be classified as such — say, like this exquisite Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio show, or that Floratone record — but a substantial bit would be at home under that heading.

Americana is a broad umbrella term, but in pop music, it has a somewhat specific meaning, referring to that hazy territory at the merger of folk, country, and early rock 'n' roll/R&B music. To quote the Americana Music Association (yes, that exists):

Americana is music that honors and is derived from the traditions of American roots music. It is music inspired by American culture traditions which is not only represented in classic man made / roots based sounds but also through new and contemporary artists whose music is clearly inspired by these great traditions.

Seeing as how Americana artists still exist (probably in far greater numbers than jazz artists), it seems odd that we might call someone "post-"Americana. I suppose you could also call Bill Frisell's music progressive Americana or art-Americana too, but I don't think that fully captures what he's about. It isn't so much that Frisell is after next-level innovation that comes from and represents a logical outgrowth of the tradition; he seems more to be willfully picking and choosing his Americana elements from an external, genre-agnostic perspective. He calls it a jazz framework, actually; from a recent All About Jazz interview:

I mean, I don't know what it is I'm playing, it's just music. But I still feel as if it's coming more from jazz than anything else, even if it doesn't sound like it. Even if it sounds more country and western or whatever kind of style it sounds like. I still think the inner workings come more from jazz than anywhere else.

Bill Frisell i
Bill Frisell


Bill Frisell, 'jazz' musician. Photo Credit: Jimmy Katz

All this is empty theorizing without some examples. Take "Think" and "Drink" from Disfarmer: though you can pick out melodies and song forms (a long, slow blues on "Drink"), they seem less "songs" than atmospheric, tension-generating musical narratives. Frisell chooses to employ the Americana trademarks represented by a resonating steel guitar, a violin playing double stops and harmony lines, a warm electric guitar and a dark acoustic bass. But these instruments are subtly recontextualized from their traditional roles: rather than playing straightforwardly tuneful, or even art-damaged folk, their sounds are put in service toward Frisell's cinematic pastiche (notice the looping violin and well-balanced post-production). There are a number of compositions and interlude-like vignettes which seem to be conceived similarly: "Little Boy," "Shutter, Dream," "Lost Again, Dark," the groove-happy "No One Gets In."

Frisell's "Arkansas" suite, in three parts, is based on an old song called "The Arkansas Traveler" — formerly an official song of the eponymous state. But the melody is examined in three different contexts: a pretty ballad; a reel or jig-like fiddle feature; a hesitant, fractured meditation with plenty of room for tangents. There's obviously a deep respect for this piece of music, but Frisell reserves the right to reassign a tune to his peculiar vision for it. Even the more straightforwardly-played songs — including selectively-plucked covers of "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)," and "That's Alright, Mama" — are delicately ornamented either by guitar distortions or seamless studio mastering in ways much more suited to intent listening experiences than the sort of raucous bar shows or campfire singalongs you'd more commonly hear them in. I mean, this was a multimedia work exhibited in concert halls, after all.

Disfarmer Portrait 2


These people probably never heard the term post-Americana before, nor would they care to. Photo Credit: Mike Disfarmer/courtesy of Peter A. Miller

I know that's a bit reductive. Frisell has other goals for the work apart from his experiments with the Americana aesthetic, and I bet he doesn't engage this critical claptrap about it. You hear repeating themes and ideas throughout the album (one prominent example being the "Farmer"/"Focus" and "I Am Not A Farmer"/"Small Town" packages), so it's clearly all meant to work together (and with images, at that). But you get the idea: as an outsider, he's treating Americana as a buffet, picking and choosing his favorite reference points for a conceptual work. He doesn't buy into the Americana concept in the way the industry does, or attempt chamber/hybrid bluegrass in the way The Avett Brothers or Chris Thile might; he just likes using old-time sounds in telling his stories.

I suspect I'm not the first to use the term "post-Americana," but I didn't knowingly steal it from anyone else either. Really, I see Frisell as part of a larger wave of postmodernism sweeping over jazz. Once the idea of stylistic linear progress (Armstrong begat Eldridge begat Gillespie, etc) exploded into a thousand different directions sometime around 1970, and now that we even have such a thing as The Jazz Canon to talk about, and now that we're getting closer to having all recorded music ever available on demand, jazz musicians today feel liberated to mix and match their influences. (This is a pet theory of mine that I assume you'll see elsewhere in this blog, but I might as well lay it out now.) I mean, any time you see a highly-trained jazz musician taking on pop and rock of today, you see that sort of process in action: if everything is fair game, why not score a Bjork cover for big band — or make a whole album of such songs?

When Frisell says he does jazz, he's talking about the process and the approach, not the vocabulary. There are probably some out there who would challenge his use of the term: he's borrowing a white-encoded musical language to create something without much in the way of solo improvisation. But that's another debate. Let's just say that even if you don't like it, Frisell's loving act of appropriation is more relevant to contemporary jazz than you may think.

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Related: we're conducting a 140-character Twitter review experiment, a la Christopher Weingarten/@1000TimesYes, for this record. Listen and post your thoughts with hashtag #disfarmer. Or, you know, just hit up the comments.

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