NEW YORK - The house lights low, guitarist Bill Frisell leads his quartet to the stage at the renowned Village Vanguard to play new music built around the theme of the Great Flood - the Mississippi River flood of 1927. It's the last Tuesday in April. Opening set, opening night, in one of the world's most renowned jazz clubs.
Frisell's T-shirt is jet-black, his hair shaggy white. He totes a red folder of sheet music in one hand, a shiny sunburst Stratocaster in the other. But deep inside, he's nervous. The band - old friends, newly assembled - have barely rehearsed the tunes. The compositions, commissioned for a Bill Morrison film score, are still evolving. He's never played them live. Will there be magic?
Then, the music begins. A rumble of drums that feels like gathering storm clouds, an evocation of New Orleans and Louis Armstrong, an angular jazz march that feels like Monk at Mardi Gras. Trumpet and drum, bass and guitar. Eclectic treatments of "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Old Man River" and "St. Louis Blues." Music that flows like currents in a stream: surging, coalescing, breaking away into pools, floating through new landscapes, an ever-changing story, united in a sense of harmony.
Onstage, Frisell is swept away in song, dappling the music with exotic bends and bell tones. His apprehensions melt away. As Ron Miles leads the march on trumpet, Frisell locks eyes with Tony Scheer on double bass and smiles unabashedly. He gives way to joy.
"The overall feeling I have, being in music, is like being in this ocean," he'll say softly, earnestly, the next day. "Something vast. Or more than vast. … Infinite. It's the universe. And you're in this thing. And you can go in any direction at all."
Frisell, who will perform his Great Flood improvisations Thursday night at the Continental Club, has been described as "the Clark Kent of jazz guitar." He's a shy superstar, aw-shucks humble, so democratically inclined that it makes him wince to utter the phrase "band leader." Frisell, 60, believes in the power of the collective. His stage posture is all about humility. But when it comes to breadth, or an eagerness to stand apart from labels and try something new, Frisell is a lion.
Frisell's trademark is his sense of curiosity, a sense of play that he brings to all music. It's nothing for him to tour with six or seven different ensembles over the course of a year. He's into bossa nova, the blues, avant-garde, folk standards, film music, world music, jazz-based string quartets. His aim: Strive to express something new while embracing the roots of song in all forms.
"The music itself will lead you around," he says. "There's always something right there in front of you to grab onto and want you to do. You'll never finish it, that's for sure. … but all I can do is just whatever is interesting me in the moment and just go for it."
The great modern painters: Picasso, Matisse. They had artistic "periods" that were measured in calendar years. Frisell? He spins on a dime. He's already released two Grammy-worthy recordings this year: the dreamy, melodic "Lágrimas Mexicanas" duet album with Brazilian-born guitarist and vocalist Vinicius Cantuária and the brand-new "Sign of Life," a guitar-driven string quartet record that suggests daring and modern in America while at the same time evoking heartland folk or, say, Philip Glass. In June, he'll perform with Cantuária on one night, McCoy Tyner the next. He's also planning to record an album of John Lennon interpretations.
Frisell doesn't like musical labels or assignations. To him, jazz is simply the Music of Imagination, a place where "anything is possible." "It's more like a giant tree," Frisell says of his experiential sense of music. "Like if you're a kid, climbing a tree, and you're just going branch to branch. And you think, `Maybe I'll go over there for a minute.'" This web of branches, "all coming from the same place."
In concert, Frisell rarely stands center stage. It's not in his nature. Plus: He sees better, hears better, off to the side. He loves space in his own playing and graciously allows space for the creativity of others, particular rhythm players. He'll often cue a player into a solo with a smile, urge him into flight with encouraging eyes.
"Every night is completely different. And it's a journey," says Austin singer-songwriter and fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez, who toured with Frisell this spring, in Europe, sitting at center stage in a string quartet featuring steel guitarist Greg Leisz and bassist Viktor Krauss. "Bill exudes joy when he's playing at all times … and sometimes, at the end of the concert, it was almost like waking up from a dream.
"Bill would say, `Carrie, play whatever you feel. Do what you want with this music. You don't have to follow the charts precisely.' He wants everybody to bring whatever they are feeling in the moment to the music. And that's what makes it so much fun."
Rodriguez marvels at Frisell's capacity to emote lyrical lines when covering a familiar melody on his guitar - as in Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" or Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." "He learns those melody lines to a `T,'" says Rodriguez. And as a result, the songs carry a transcendent power.
Frisell believes the best part of music happens when you leave the printed plan, or make a mistake, or venture spontaneously off the main road. There's a childlike essence to his musical approach, an attempt to "stay in a state of being naïve about what you're doing." He likes the players in his ensemble to go their own way and surprise him. He counts on players in his ensemble going their own way and surprising him.
"I started playing clarinet when I was 9, 10 years old," Frisell says very softly, musing about his musical roots, growing up in Denver. "And I remember goofing off with friends in the clarinet section, doing mischief, doing stuff like, `Let's play this thing backward.' You know, juvenile delinquent stuff."
Yet at the same time, those kids were celebrating that wildly creative world in which anything is possible. The place Frisell lives today. "I like it that you can do these things and go into these places … but it doesn't hurt anybody. It's like jumping off a cliff, but you don't get hurt. Or pushing somebody else off the cliff, and they don't get hurt."
Flanked by portraits of jazz giants - Coltrane, Monk, Dexter Gordon - Frisell closes his set at the Village Vanguard with a tender rendition of "Moon River." For all his love of loops and electronic gadgetry, Frisell is a guitarist who loves simplicity and space.
Frisell feels the torrent of difficult times, of nature unbalanced. Where are we going? What is happening? For Frisell, the antidote is "Moon River." On this night, it is a kiss. The suggestion of gentleness.
When it's over, the crowd in the jazz basement is abuzz as it heads for the doors. The Vanguard's owner, the stately Lorraine Gordon, now in her 80s, is just as enthusiastic. "You just heard the best there is," she says to no one in particular, standing at the foot of the stairs. "The best there is."
The Bill Frisell Quartet
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Continental Club, 1315 S. Congress Ave.