Sam Amidon | photo courtesy of the artist

Sam Amidon grew up surrounded by Appalachian folk music. His parents always performed and taught traditional music, and get-togethers with family friends inevitably included singing.

But in the 1990s, when Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and several of Alan Lomax’s field recordings were reissued on CD, Amidon was confronted with something that sounded as if it came from another world. The folk songs he heard as a child in Brattleboro, Vermont were performed live or on contemporary, cleanly-produced recordings made by acquaintances. Suddenly, here were vintage recordings buried under hiss and crackle, with strange accents and weathered voices.

“When I heard old field recordings of fiddlers and singers on the mountain, it was as harsh and strange as an Albert Ayler free jazz album,” Amidon recalls. “For my parents, folk music was very social. They used it the way people have always used it, to get together and sing with their friends. So when I started encountering field recordings it sounded as alien as my first encounter with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and was part of the same world of exploration.”

To some extent, Amidon’s own recordings of reworked folk songs aim to recreate that uncanny introduction. On his latest, Lily-O (Nonesuch), the singer, fiddle player, banjoist and guitarist works with bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Chris Vatalaro, and renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who has built his own career on reimaging the sounds of Americana in a distinctly individual way. The four create an otherworldly sound environment, in which pieces of age-old folk songs emerge and are recontextualized, at once familiar and completely unexpected.

“It’s a personal encounter,” Amidon describes of his relationship with folk songs like “Walkin’ Boss” or “Maid Lamenting,” which he warps to his own ends on Lily-O. “There’s often a strangeness in the stories, which can be confusing and dark. For me,  these old songs are very intense because on the one hand they’re extremely foreign and strange, and on the other hand they’re very comforting and familiar. A lot of the sentiments expressed in those songs are universal statements, but at the same time the details are very odd and wonderful. So the albums are an exploration of that for me.”

The full quartet will reunite at FringeArts on Friday, October 17, for an Ars Nova Workshop-presented concert to celebrate the album’s release.

Amidon first encountered Frisell’s music when he spotted the guitarist’s 1998 album Gone, Just Like a Train on the wall of a record store while he was still in high school. The album’s cover art featured the work of comic book artist Jim Woodring, which attracted Amidon, a devotee of underground comics. But his interest was stalled when he read a description of Frisell as a “jazz guitarist.”

“My friend Thomas Bartlett and I had weird prejudices against different things when we were in high school, and one of the things that we were against was jazz guitar. I was just philosophically opposed to it as a teenager for some reason. So I wasn’t allowed to buy Bill’s album because it was surely going to be evil.”

It was Bartlett that broke their self-imposed ban when he heard Frisell’s genre-bending music a few years later and excitedly urged Amidon to listen. “It totally blew my mind because it was somebody who was dealing with American music in an entirely eccentric and personal way,” Amidon says. “He wasn’t playing bluegrass or jazz; it was this weird personal thing, so it was a huge inspiration and model for me.”

Amidon began frequenting Frisell’s performances at the Village Vanguard and the two eventually struck up a correspondence, finally resulting in a brief duo tour a few years ago. The two have been discussing ways in which to work together ever since, and the recording of Lily-O finally provided the opportunity.

While he brought the songs and their reimagined forms to the recording session in Iceland, Amidon insists that the quartet was integral in shaping their final forms. “When I enter the studio I like there to be some random element where the songs come up against something unexpected and confusing, some strange foreign thing that’s different from me,” he says. “On a couple of my albums that force has been Nico Muhly’s orchestrations; here it’s Bill and the quartet as a whole. I’m a jazz nerd, but I don’t play jazz and I’m not going to go make a pretend jazz album. But in a way, this album tries to go for something that I love about jazz records, which is that quality of people responding to each other in time, weird little microscopic musical interactions and surprises.”

Sam Amidon, Bill Frisell and Shahzad Ismaily’s Folk Melodies Vividly Reimagined takes place at FringeArts on Friday, October 17th. Tickets and information can be found here.