Bill Frisell … when “every song becomes its own world”February 18, 2015
“Waiting to talk to the most important American guitarist since Jimi Hendrix.”
That was what I Tweeted out the other day, about an hour before I spent a few minutes talking with Bill Frisell, the Grammy-winning jazz guitarist who (it is important to note), along with drummer-percussionist Kenny Wollensen, is scheduled to play Little Rock’s Ron Robinson Theater, at 7 p.m. Monday February 28. (Tickets are $20. Visit arkansassounds.org. for more information.)
I sent out the Tweet as a tease, because it’s what they say people in my line of work ought to do these days, tantalize our “followers” on various social media platforms. But the more I thought about, the more I decided it was more true than hyperbolic. I will admit that for awhile I got used to seeing Frisell name as kind of a guarantee of a certain quality, he was above all a “tasteful” sideman whose work I encountered on records by Elvis Costello, Don Byron, Marianne Faithful, David Sanborn, Suzanne Vega, Loudon Wainwright III, Vernon Reid, Van Dyke Parks, Vic Chesnutt, Rickie, Lee Jones, Bonn ie Raitt, Ron Sexsmith, John Scofield, Ginger Baker,Hal Willner, Mark Metheny, David Sanborn and Petra Haden among dozens (if not hundreds) of others. He’s worked with figures as disparate as free jazz composer-producer-saxophonist John Zorn and alt-folkie Vic Chesnut.
Yet in the past 20 years or so, Frisell has come into his own as a composer and bandleader. He has recorded more than 25 albums under his own name (two of his of his most recent, 2011’s All We Are Saying, a tribute to the songs of John Lennon, and 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age!, are immediately accessible records that rely mostly on modern standard), establishing himself as a singular, exceptional musical voice. (One of my favorite Frisell recordings, the one that made me recognize him as more than an ubiquitous sideman, was one of his first as bandleader: 1992’s Have a Little Faith, a marvelous tour of American popular song from Aaron Copland to John Hiatt, with nods to John Phillip Sousa, Charles Ives, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Stepehn Foster, Sonny Rollins,and Madonna.)
While we can argue about the merits of different players — cases could be made for any number of players, including SRV, Buddy Guy, Lee Renaldo, Jack White, Lee Renaldo — we’d ultimately come down to arguing taste. But there’s an unbinnable, catholic quality to Frisell’s playing, he cuts across all record store rubrics, incoporating strains of all species of American music in a remarkably generous and even subdued style that never sacrifices the integrity of the song on the altar of hot licks. Frisell creates a climate with his guitar (mostly a Telecaster these days, those he’s also performed some delicate, atmospheric acoustic work), great clouds of tone upon which he embroiders elegant figures. While Frisell is undeniably a virtuostic player, there’s a great depth of feeling to his work as well. He’s been compared to Miles Davis for the way he sustains and nourishes a melody even while putting it through a gymnastic workout.
But I’m afraid I’m making him sound a little too jazzbo academic and severe. What you need to do is listen to his playing. So here he is with Elvis Costello in 2009:
And on here he is backing Lucinda Williams’ on “Compassion,” off her recent Where the Spirit Meets the Bone:
And here’s “I Am Not a Farmer,” from his own soundtrack album for the Disfarmer project:
Frisell is also a lovely interview. Our conversation free-associated over a range of musical topics, including what he and Wollensen — with whom he’s been collaborating on and off for nearly 20 years — might play at the Ron Ronbison show (He doesn’t know. They’ll probably free wheel it.) to the immediate connection he felt playing with Lucinda Williams and her regular touring band, to how he got his musical start, playing clarinet:
“In fourth grade … that’s when they went around and asked if anyone wanted to play an instrument,” Frisell says. “And I just took to it, I did well at it, I don’t remember ever being super enthusiastic about it, but I enmded up being the first chair in the band or whatever, and I ended up playing clarinet all the way into college — I was close to the idea that I would try to do that.”
Frisell, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951, spent most of his youth in Colorado, studying with clarinet with Richard Joiner of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, graduating from Denver East High School, going on to the University of Northern Colorado to study music. He came to the guitar the same way a lot of us did.
“The guitar, that’s what I went to on my own — no one had to tell me to go play the guitar. I just started messing around … the guitar was more a social thing, it was my version of being social. When I played guitar was when I was with my friend. It sort of shifted from, when I was really young, playing baseball or whatever … somebody got a guitar. And that’s where my heart ended up being. I didn’t have to think about being serious about playing the guitar.”
Still it wasn’t until “late in high school” that Frisell acquired a real guitar teacher (Dale Bruning, with whom he released the 2000 duo album Reunion). After graduating from Northern Colorado, where he studied with Johnny Smith, Frisell went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with Jon Damian and Jim Hall.
The legend — that I neglected to ask him about — is that he became ECM’s house guitarist after Pat Metheny had to cancel a session with drummer-composere Paul Motian, and recommended Frisell as a recplacement. Frisell’s first album under his own name — and still the closest thing he’s ever done to a genuine solo album — was 1983’s In Line, a meditative post-bop record composed of original compositions. The first half of the album is Frisell alone, on both acoustic and electric guitars; on the second half of the album — what was side two — he duets with bassist Arild Andersen.
It took me a few years to work my way back to In Line, and maybe longer still to fully appreciate his immense place in the American musical landscape. The blurbs on his website, billfrisell.com speak to the respect he commands among both his peers and people like me, who listen to a lot of music for a living.
Before I sent out my baiting Tweet, I hadn’t read what this quote from the New York Times:
“It’s hard to find a more fruitful meditation on American music than in the compositions of guitarist Bill Frisell. Mixing rock and country with jazz and blues, he’s found what connects them: improvisation and a sense of play. Unlike other pastichists, who tend to duck passion, Mr. Frisell plays up the pleasure in the music and also takes on another often-avoided subject, tenderness.”
That’s it, there’s a sort of tenderness that marks Frisell’s playing and makes him instantly receivable, even by people who don’t read Downbeat or listen to Ornette Coleman (or Anthony Braxton). Frisell has an uncommon gift for curating the musical DNA of a song, for discovering in the sometimes elemental changes and resolving patterns what sparks in our hearts. He plays with rare feeling.
“More and more and more [melody] is the key to everything,” he says. “I find the deeper I go, the more I play it, it tells me everything I need to know. … I studied music and I try to understand the harmony and where it’s coming from — I try to understand the bottom of it — but the real thing is that if I just keep playing the melody over and over it starts to show me things in another way… It gives me something to hold onto and then I can go off with my imagination around it. Then every song becomes its own world.”