Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller and Marc Ribot all are well-known to fans of the electric guitar, but just what will happen when they share a stage is anyone's guess. You can be pretty sure, though, that it won't be a night of finger-blistering one-upmanship, since the three are consummate sidemen as well as master soloists. Even on their own recordings, it's hard to find instrumental grandstanding—the relevant reaction is usually less "how did he do that?" than "how did he think of that?"
But these are not musicians you would casually plunk onto the same bill, which is just what makes Wednesday's concert so intriguing. The three are convening for a Nashville recording project, and their Belcourt show will give a first taste of the new collaboration.
On the face of it, Miller might seem the odd man out. The reigning king of Americana is most at home in Nashville's singer-songwriter circles, while Frisell and Ribot come from the jazz world and both have long-standing associations with the downtown New York scene of John Zorn and friends.
On the other hand, Frisell has had connections hereabouts since his 1997 album Nashville, which featured locals Jerry Douglas, Viktor Krauss, and members of Alison Krauss' band Union Station. And on the other other hand, Ribot is surely the most flexible session musician ever to emerge from the world of avant-garde jazz—producer T-Bone Burnett works with Ribot often, and tapped him to play on the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand. For guitar duties on the ensuing tour, Burnett recruited...that's right—Buddy Miller.
Miller needs little introduction for anyone who follows the roots music scene. He and wife Julie practically swept the Americana Music Association awards in 2009 after their long-awaited album Written in Chalk, and his stunning gospel-tinged solo effort Universal United House of Prayer fared nearly as well at the 2005 ceremony.
Since moving to Nashville in 1993, Miller has been Emmylou Harris' regular guitarist, and he produced her 1998 Spyboy. He's also backed the likes of Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale and Shawn Colvin, and his songs have been recorded by The Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, Levon Helm and many others.
They aren't the only folks impressed by Miller's raw, tremolo-heavy guitar and his powerful songwriting—when Bill Frisell directed the 2003-2005 "Century of Song" concerts at the German Ruhrtriennale arts festival, he invited Miller to appear there.
As for Frisell himself, the label "jazz" doesn't begin to capture the scope of his interests and achievement. Sure, he's a consistent poll-topper in Downbeat magazine, but even when he teams up with jazz greats like Jim Hall, Ron Carter or long-time associate Paul Motian, he's as apt to draw tunes from Dylan or Hank Sr. as from Monk or Ellington. And there's no smug irony—he clearly means every note.
Critics tend to identify a turn in Frisell's music around the time of his mid-'90s Nashville album—from edgy, experimental jazz to the spacious, roots-influenced aesthetic he's known for now. But when he played Vanderbilt way back in 1982, accompanying Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, his atmospheric volume pedal work already evoked pedal steel, and even his earliest solo recordings suggest a love for blues and country as well as for Ornette Coleman.
Despite contrasting musical personalities, Frisell and Ribot share a sensitivity that makes them ideal accompanists across a wide range of styles. Rocker Elvis Costello and jazz giant McCoy Tyner have enlisted both guitarists, Frisell has graced records by Norah Jones and Paul Simon, and Ribot's seemingly endless credits include Tom Waits, The Lounge Lizards, Wilson Pickett, Madeline Peyroux—even Alan Ginsberg, for crying out loud.
Ribot's own output is perhaps even more varied than his session work, and is shelved as "jazz" only for lack of a better slot. Though he may be best known for the angular, punky style of songs like "Yo! I Killed Your God" or of his current group Ceramic Dog, he ranges easily from the meditative to the downright playful. He's recorded the classical guitar works of his early teacher Frantz Casseus, he's fronted a fun faux-Cuban band. It's hard even to pick out the guitar in his virtually orchestral "Scelsi Morning"—we know you got the Joni Mitchell reference, extra points for identifying the homage to hypermodern Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi.
The guitarists have enlisted a rhythm section drawn from the Krauss/Plant touring band, with Dennis Crouch of The Time Jumpers on bass, session veteran Jay Bellerose on drums, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, who has played pedal steel on Frisell's records.
Though its precise style may be hard to predict, the Frisell-Miller-Ribot collaboration certainly promises taste and soul. Its premiere is an occasion to put aside any hand-wringing about musical genres and just relish the alchemy of whatever these three guitar wizards cook up.
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