By JENNIFER KELLY
Sam Amidon subtly adjusts his folk-free-jazz-avant-garde brew on Lily O, hewing closer to the rustic core of his traditional material than on Bright Sunny South. Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Shazad Ismaily haunt the peripheries of these tunes, shading righteous pre-War certainty with spectral atmospherics and free jazz experiments, and producer Valgeir Sigurosson aids in opening the songs up into vast, sweeping dimensions. Yet you have to listen for these non-folk elements, so closely do they blend into a simple, beautiful essence.
In concert, a week or two ago, Amidon veered significantly left with these songs, giving Ismaily the space and freedom to turn straight-laced country rhythms into something richer and more experimental. In “Lily O”, for instance, Ismaily played a liquid jazz bass, filling in the interstices with bursts of meditative tones that felt like footnotes, explaining and expanding the main text. (The recorded version has hardly a trace of jazz.). “Groundhog Variations,” on record an eerily slanted interpretation of bucolic hoedown, turned, on stage, into a wild cacophony of free jazz exploration. Clearly, Amidon could run wilder than he does on this album, but has, for his own reasons, pulled back.
Yet this is not a bad thing, not at all, for no one can navigate old songs so modernly as Amidon. Even, “Your Long Journey,” Rosa May Watson’s songwriting farewell to her husband Doc Watson, has a clear-eyed resilience. Amidon’s voice has a cool, clarity that plays so well against sentiment, and Frisell’s restrained, almost sporadic guitar playing has the same kind of distilled resonance.
To me, though, the most powerful song on Lily O is the one that ranges the furthest – and that would be “Down the Line,” with its clanging guitar notes, its hammering drum work, its wide-open, ominous space. Amidon shows the crack in his voice here, but it’s a beautiful roughness, like a knot in polished wood, and it, plus the wide-screen orchestration, give this tune a scope and impact that the banjo-picking ones (“Walking Boss” “Pat Do This, Pat Do That”) don’t have.
Amidon is a fascinating figure, as comfortable in improvisatory jazz as at sacred harp gatherings. All his records balance these tradition, making a blend or setting them to fight or finding unexpected commonalities, and Lily-O is no different. He just hides his eccentricities a little better this time. You have to look for them, but they’re there.
DOWNLOAD: “Down the Line,” “Lily O”