Bill Frisell has long been one of the most distinctive guitarists in jazz, but only in the last five years has he managed to focus his talent–oddly enough, by funneling it through country music. Frisell’s associations in the 80s with Bill Laswell and John Zorn infected his subsequent work, replacing the pastoralism of his first recordings with often functionless eclecticism: he can switch from ethereal fluff to heavy metal to country twang to surf in the blink of an eye, and too often, especially with Zorn, he did. But with 1993’s Have a Little Faith (Nonesuch), which included interpretations of tunes by Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Sonny Rollins, Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, John Hiatt, and Madonna, Frisell began honing a delightful, highly original take on Americana. Now, with the new Nashville (also on Nonesuch), he’s finally decided to confront country head-on. Joined by a terrific band that includes dobro legend Jerry Douglas, Lyle Lovett bassist Viktor Krauss, and banjoist Ron Block and mandolinist Adam Steffey of Alison Krauss’s Union Station, the guitarist acquits himself like a pro–though actually, a fusion bug often sullies pro picking sessions, whereas Nashville plays it cool, opting for restraint. Although a number of the covers are disposable (particularly a remake of the unimprovable Skeeter Davis hit “The End of the World,” on which guest vocalist Robin Holcomb sounds like an anemic Dolly Parton), Frisell’s originals are superb. The group he brings to town–trombonist Curtis Fowlkes of the Jazz Passengers, trumpeter Ron Miles, and spectacular violinist-tuba player Eyvind Kang, who’s worked with both Zorn and the Sun City Girls–is exciting in a different way. Frisell’s mostly composed music for this group seamlessly blends chirpy marches, bittersweet blues, raw country licks, and orchestral swells, and the foursome pulls it all off with staggering depth. Without much fanfare, Frisell has emerged as one of America’s most vital and versatile musical minds. Tuesday, 8 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Sibila Savage.