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Sparking an Eclectic Atmosphere

Guitarist-composer Bill Frisell brings his jazz-based stylings to the Skirball Center.

October 01, 1998|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bill Frisell, the celebrated modern musician who has recorded with the likes of Elvis Costello, Ginger Baker and Joe Lovano, gives new meaning to the word "eclectic."

The guitarist-composer's most recent Nonesuch album, "Gone, Just Like a Train," finds him working in a bare-bones trio with bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jim Keltner, sounding like a slow-motion, spaced-out version of Jimi Hendrix one moment, a gritty country-esque picker the next.

Frisell's prior release, "Nashville," has a definite country flavor, but includes improvisational touches. Frisell's appearance on trumpeter and fluegelhornist Kenny Wheeler's "Angel Song" CD finds him delivering alternately lyrical and edgy, yet perfectly placed, avant-garde jazz statements.

And his next project will be instrumental versions of songs recently composed and recorded by an unlikely pair: Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach.

Despite his fondness for everything from the Beach Boys and Hank Williams to Kurt Weill and Hendrix, Frisell cites such jazz players as Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans as primary models.

"No matter whether people say I'm country this or rock that or whatever you call it, still way down at the bottom is jazz," said Frisell. "That's the foundation for whatever my own music is. It informs everything."

Frisell performs tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. He began as a rocker growing up in Denver, shifted to jazz when he heard Montgomery and Jim Hall, and expanded his horizons while at the Berklee college of Music in Boston, where he studied in the late '70s.

He then lived in New York, where he played with a wide range of jazz musicians, from fellow guitarist John Scofield to ex-Bill Evans drummer Paul Motian, with whom Frisell still performs and has recorded 13 albums. The guitarist now makes his home in Seattle.

"That was one of the first gigs where someone had me play because they wanted me to be myself," Frisell said of Motian, whose trio also includes the heavyweight jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. "It continues to be really amazing."

Frisell has recorded nearly 100 albums. On 22, he was leader or co-leader of the group, mostly trios and quartets--the size of band in which he usually performs. But his Skirball appearance will be unaccompanied, a circumstance that was once "terrifying" but which has become more comfortable.

"At some point, I had a few moments where it started to lift off the ground, where I lost the fear of the silence all around me," he said. "That's what would mess me up, thinking I had to fill all the space around myself, not do anything and let that be something."

The guitarist, who will record a solo album soon, said his program will likely be decided spontaneously. "I often just show up, plug in and start playing," he said.

* Bill Frisell plays tonight at 8 in the Magnin Auditorium of the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. $12-$18; $5 charge for parking. (310) 440-4500.

*

Versatility Redux: Betty O'Hara is another musician who, like Frisell, doesn't care much for boundaries. Years ago, she played trumpet in the Hartford (Conn.) Symphony.

Then, after moving to the San Fernando Valley, she's offered swell, straight-ahead jazz trombone with the JazzBirds, which she co-founded with trumpeter-fluegelhornist Stacy Rowles, and robust traditional jazz with a variety of bands around our area, among them the venerated Dick Cary.

It's sad news, then, that this talented, vital musician suffered a stroke in March and remains in a rehabilitation hospital in Sherman Oaks.

Many of her colleagues and friends have formed a fund to aid with the medical expenses O'Hara is incurring. If you'd like to contribute, please write a check to "Friends of Betty O'Hara Fund," and send it to Friends of Betty O'Hara, c/o the Sweet and Hot Music Foundation, P.O. Box 642269, Los Angeles, CA 90064-2269.

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