Master guitarist Bill Frisell turns curator for Roots of Americana series with Sam Amidon, Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran
by Ben Greenman photography Atisha Paulson
In his three decades as a recording artist, Bill Frisell has ranged across American music, from jazz to country to pop to folk. He has collaborated with everyone from Vernon Reid to Elvis Costello, created film scores and covered artists as diverse as Neil Young, Hank Williams and Madonna. Now he’s taking on a new challenge, as the curator of Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Roots of Americana series. The first shows, opening this month, look at George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Stephen Foster and William Billings.
“There’s a body of songs that was just sort of in my bloodstream. I didn’t really even know where they came from.”
A little more than a week before the Lincoln Center event, Frisell was in a San Francisco hotel, putting the finishing touches on the program. Soft-spoken and circumspect, he admits that the notion of an Americana theme initially gave him pause. “From my side, that idea left it very wide open. There’s a whole umbrella under that word, ‘Americana,’ a world of music, and I just wanted to make sure we captured some part of it.”
It’s likely that he will. Born in Baltimore in 1951, Frisell was raised in Denver, where he played clarinetist in his junior high band and guitar in a series of after-school rock groups. (His classmates included Philip Bailey, Larry Dunn and Andrew Wolfolk, future members of Earth, Wind & Fire and members of the Mellow Mystics, a rival to Frisell’s Soul Merchants.) In the early ’80s, Frisell worked as the house guitarist for the German jazz label ECM. The Lincoln Center assignment returned him to the America of his youth. “It connects to songs that my mother was singing or whistling around the house while she was cooking dinner,” he says. “I didn’t really even know where they came from. They stretched back to my grandparents in Baltimore and West Virginia. It’s a kind of oral tradition, almost subliminal. It’s music that’s around the edges of life, and it seeps in.”
As he chose composers for the series, Frisell quickly found that the works he picked reflected and refracted one another. “My whole musical life has been a form of getting tangled up, both in my own work and in other people’s,” he says. “Here, everything is related to something else. Gershwin and Ives and Foster are like kaleidoscopes—so much comes off of them and also off of the relationships between them.”
Much of Frisell’s own music depends upon a tension between shadow and light, and the composers he selected for his series embody both the optimism of America and the ever-present possibility of tragedy. There’s Gershwin, of course, the preeminent American composer of the early twentieth century, who was taken by a brain tumor in 1937, when he was only 38. There’s Foster, the prolific writer of immensely popular parlor songs, who fell into poverty and died without even reaching 38. And then there’s Ives, who lived into his late 70s, but was almost unremembered as a composer at his death. “I’m so inspired by them,” Frisell says. “Take Ives. I know he wanted people to hear his work, but he was motivated to move forward whether or not that was happening. These days, on shows like American Idol, you hear kids saying this is their big chance. There’s no big chance in music. You have to play every day.”
The series showcases Frisell’s sensibilities, but also those of the performers he has assembled: pianist Jason Moran, the musical adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center; singer Alicia Hall Moran, who is married to Moran; and folk guitarist Sam Amidon. Each musician, like each composer, functions as a nodal point. “I know enough about the music to know that I love it,” Frissell said. “But I’m surrounding myself with these people who know more about it than I do, and hopefully some of that can rub off. Alicia sang in the Broadway version of Porgy and Bess, and she knows the Gershwin songs so deeply that when I hear her sing them I realize that maybe I don’t know them at all.”
"My whole musical life has been a form of getting tangled up, both in my own work and in other people's."
Many of the ancient folk songs are there because of Amidon, despite the fact that he’s only in his early 30s. “Sam is unbelievable,” Frisell says. “He’s not very old now, but a long time ago I’d be playing at the Village Vanguard and he would show up and just introduce himself. Then one of these times he handed me a CD. At some point I was by myself in a rental car at five in the morning and I put the disc on and it was all these songs like O Death and Sugar Baby, and he was doing these incredible things with them.” Amidon was also instrumental in putting the work of William Billings, an eighteen-century choral composer, on the program.
Frisell has curated before. In 2003, he returned to Germany to direct the Century of Song series, which paired artists such as Vic Chesnutt and Rickie Lee Jones with their favorite songs. Still, the prospect of directing an evening at Lincoln Center is daunting. “I’m not sure if I’m cut out for this,” he says, laughing. “When I play, I like to have the freedom to go in all directions at once. Here, I have to create a structure for others, though the hope is that within that structure they’ll have that same freedom. Right now I’m in this hotel room, with music scattered everywhere and choices still to be made. Sam hasn’t met Jason and Alicia yet. It remains to be seen how they’ll interact, though each of the parts works so well that I imagine that the whole will work well. I want this phase to be over with and I want all of us to be playing whatever song we’re playing. When we’re onstage, when that’s happening, that’s when I’ll know that everything’s going to be cool.”