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Bill Frisell's Tribute to Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant

COLUMBUS. Ohio— Mid-century Los Angeles hipsters Jimmy Bryant and Wesley “Speedy” West recorded the instrumental “West of Samoa” in 1955. The track is a intergalatic mash-up of Hawaiian steel, exotica bird chirps and country-jazz guitar.

This America was about endless possibility.

You go as far as the road takes you.

West was a steel guitarist flash who was delivered from the Ozarks, specifically the country mecca of Springfield, Mo. Bryant was the oldest of 12 kids from a sharecropper’s family in Southern Georgia.

They met in the country-western honky tonks of L.A.’s skid row……..

…….The Wexner Center for the Arts commissioned guitarist Bill Frisell to interpret the music of Bryant and West. The world premiere of “Not So Fast: The Music of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant” took place Saturday night in two shows at the beautiful arts center on the campus of Ohio State University.

I had to hear this.

Bill Frisell, photo by Michael Wilson

Frisell was accompanied by an outstanding band consisting of long-time collaborator Greg Leisz (Dave Alvin, most recently Vic Chesnutt’s “Ghetto Bells” record) on pedal and lap steel, drummer Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, Bob Dylan) and bassist Dennis Crouch.

Frisell smiled as he introduced “West of Samoa.”

He wide-eyed smiled as if he was walking into the late great Kahiki Polynesian restaurant in Columbus or a new Trader Vic’s on Sunset Strip.

“Imagination was cool,” Frisell said before introducing the song. “Imagination must have been in everybody’s minds.”

He wondered aloud if we still have that.

Hawaii wasn’t even a state, America had yet to visit the moon and what the hell was west of Samoa anyway? Maybe it was Speedy,

Heffington introduced the piece with a space-age solo on mouth harp, followed by a jungle beat on pom-pom drums. Crouch laid back with bluesy bass and Leisz kicked in with a hula sway on lap steel.

Frisell played the country-jazz riff on the Fender Telecaster, which was championed by Bryant. [Leo Fender gave Bryant the yet-unnamed Fender Telecaster in 1950 and in 1947 West had purchased an amplifier from Fender). Frisell looked at his band and continued to smile.

We are only as strong as our imagination.

Here’s a version of the original “West of Samoa”

Bryant and West were typically call me lightnin’ players who became regulars on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s weekly television show. Speedy’s nickname is obvious and Bryant released records like “Frettin’ Fingers (The Lightning Guitar of Jimmy Bryant).”

Frisell slowed down his versions of their instrumentals, reflected in the title of the evening’s performances. The spacious arrangements were a good match for the expressive yet lucid lines played by Frisell.

Frisell, 60, jumps into his music fingers first. He knows that music is a glorious adventure. He has played with Marianne Faithful, Elvis Costello and was on the Hal Wilner tribute to folkorist Harry Smith.

I brought along his 1997 “Nashville” record for my road trip, which covers everything from Neil Young’s “One of These Days” to Hazel Dickens’ “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands” with Frisell leading a six-piece band of Nashville session players.

Frisell had never heard of Bryant and West until Wexner Director of Performing Arts Chuck Helm played him their music. In the program notes Frisell wrote, “My first impression was, ‘Man alive! This is insane! The speed, technique….wacky! I’d never heard anything like it.

And more important:

“In music there is always something right there in front of you, just beyond your grasp. Always something to do next. It never stops. Always a next step.”

This must be why Frisell smiles so much when he plays.

Don’t miss the Bill Frisell Quartet (different players) at 8 p.m. May 14 at SPACE in Evanston.

The 90-minute set in the Performance Space of the Wexner Center was one happy surprise after another. There was the whimsical nature of “Serenade to a Frog,” the bounce of “Bryant’s Boogie” that surely mirrored the South Central L.A. jump blues scene of the same period and even “Hometown Polka,” to which a child at the late show shouted out, “POLKA!”

Now that’s something you won’t hear at the Empty Bottle.

The Wexner Center for the Performing Arts, Columbus.

Courtesy of artist Kevin Fitzsimons and the ACE GALLERY.

Frisell and his band brought the music of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West back to full tilt life with empathetic measure. Bryant and West championed a carousel of colorful musical styles. Between 1950 and 1955 West, with and without Bryant, performed on more than 6,000 recordings with 177 different artists. Their resume included Spike Jones, Johnnie Ray, Doris Day and Frank Sinatra.

The momentum generated from Saturday’s world premiere will certainly lead to a recording and if we’re all lucky, a really quick tour.