While people call Eric Clapton "Slowhand," the guitar god most deserving of that moniker is Bill Frisell. For more than 30 years, his distinctive, quavering timbre has enveloped myriad genres, including jazz, country, blues, bluegrass and rock. His guitar riffs tend to move with catlike delicacy, deliberate but efficient, landing softly on the ears as the after-tones hover like morning fog, then disappear in the sunshine of another salvo.
This diaphanous style suits Frisell's modest manner. It's accessible and gently intoxicating, providing him with a fan base that is larger and more loyal than most jazz-oriented artists can generate. Frisell takes prolific advantage of this artistic freedom to mount a steady stream of projects. His current tour, dubbed "Guitar in the Space Age!" — which brings Frisell back to the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday and Tuesday — concentrates on pop music from the 1960s.
"The first stuff that ever got me fired up was surf music — the Ventures, the Astronauts, the Beach Boys. It was my first awareness of guitars and how cool they must be to play," said Frisell, who was born in 1951 and moved to Denver, hometown of the Astronauts, early in his childhood. "I was also into hot rod culture, George Barris and Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, with all those designs and decals."
Both the surf and hot-rod cultures of the late '50s and '60s were soaked in guitar reverb, the signature sound of Fender-model guitars. Frisell calls it "the tipping point for me becoming obsessed with music as a kid.
"Part of this [project] is really personal for me and part of it is a research project, paying tribute to people who made that sound who I discovered later. I'm not sure how aware I was of Duane Eddy, but he made that surf music. Same with Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West in country, leading into Merle Travis."
He's visiting Minneapolis with the same ensemble that performed John Lennon and Beatles material at the Dakota two years ago: drummer Kenny Wollesen, bassist Tony Scherr and fellow guitarist Greg Liesz. Just before the tour they completed an album due for release in October. Frisell said it contains 90 percent cover tunes.
"Most of them are absolutely obvious — there is no need to find obscurities," he said. "You do one song and 10 more come to mind. We're already playing things on the road that aren't on the record."
There are torrid instrumentals like "Pipeline," and more coldblooded, stalking rhythms like Link Wray's "Rumble." There is the floating groove and sophisticated harmony of Wes Montgomery's "Bumpin," which Frisell calls "my first jazz tune. My band director asked me to learn it for a talent show at school. I brought it home and thought, 'Omigod, what is this?' That was a life-changing moment for me. And what was that, 1967? That was three years after I heard the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Everything happened so fast."
Filtered through it all is Frisell's inimitable, "slow hand" sensibility. He may have been wowed by the panache of the hot rods and Fender-strafed surf grooves, but it is telling that the first single he ever bought was the aching Beach Boys ballad, "Surfer Girl" — and that the band has covered a similarly introverted Beach Boys ballad, "In My Room," in concert.
"That Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West stuff — they must be jacked up on more than caffeine," Frisell marveled. "So it is like with bluegrass music, I don't have that physical speed, so I play it slower. I can't play those flourishes and arpeggios that Merle Travis plays on 'Cannonball Rag,' but I can play the skeletal feel of it. With bebop, I can't play what Charlie Parker plays. There is a point where I had to figure out — we all do — how to come to terms with my own limitations. I mean, I love John McLaughlin," whose blitzkrieg guitar defined the Mahavishnu Orchestra. "I can't play the way he does, but that doesn't mean I can't join in with whatever the feeling of that is."
So if Frisell's band encores with the Ventures' instrumental rave-up "Telstar" at the Dakota, as has happened at other stops on the tour, expect Frisell's custom-made resplendence as an added bonus.