A Fireside Chat with Bill Frisell
“ Sometimes I will be hearing an orchestra in my head and I'm trying to get that sound to come out on the guitar. I spend a lot of time copying saxophone players and trumpet players. ”
Having spent most of my youth in the Reagan Eighties, I matured with the impression that bassists were all like Mick Mars and guitarists all mirrored The Edge. This was acceptable behavior in my youth, but would be considered juvenile now. And although I appreciate staying "young at heart," I am grateful to have been cultured by the likes of Derek Bailey and whom I consider the finest guitarist on this side of the Atlantic, Bill Frisell, who has defined quite possibly the most recognizable sound on his instrument. A remarkable feat since every teen and his brother seems to play the guitar. With a new album in stores and one on the way, Frisell is also one of the most diligent and in demand artists of his time. Nice position to be, on top, yet Frisell is humble, another tribute to his character. We spoke via telephone during one of his few days off from his maddening schedule to touch on his new record, his instrument, and his dedication to his art, as always, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Bill Frisell: These days, I'm not sure what jazz is anymore, but for me, it's really coming from that more than anywhere else. The process I go through or what happens when I play, I think, is coming more from that than anything else from what I think I've learned from the people that really inspired me: Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. That's really what helped me form the way I go at the music, so in that way, I think it is jazz. It's become such a I don't know. For me, jazz is more a process. It's the way you go at the music, rather than a style and it seems these days, it's become more defined as a style or something. I don't really think of it that way.
AAJ: The individuals you mentioned are not guitarists, does a guitarist need to listen to other guitarists?
BF: Well, yeah, but for me, for a long, long time, I just, I think I spent a lot more time listening to just all kinds of other instruments and all kinds of music. The guitar is such a, that instrument has the ability to kind of almost mimic all these other instruments. Sometimes I will be hearing an orchestra in my head and I'm trying to get that sound to come out on the guitar. I spend a lot of time copying saxophone players and trumpet players. Not to say that it is not important to listen to guitar players, but there's so much music out there and so many possibilities. I like anyone who plays any instrument. It seems like you can get a lot deeper into your own instrument if you open yourself up to just music in general, rather than just zeroing in on the one instrument.
AAJ: Have you set pragmatic limitations on your abilities as a player?
BF: Well, there's a lot that I can't do. That's for sure (laughing). I guess I try not to put limits on my imagination or I would say don't put limits on what the possibilities are, but then you're constantly running up against physical limitations all the time and in some ways, that's where you get your own individual, personal sound. You're sort of trying to push past this point. Each person has their own kind of a wall that you get up against and then it is when you get up against that wall, you have to figure out a way to deal with it. One thing that helped me a lot when I was a bit younger, I read something about Miles Davis saying that he was trying to play like Dizzy Gillespie, but he couldn't play that high so he just played what he thought was sort of the same stuff an octave lower or something. And I was thinking if Miles Davis had been able to play like Dizzy Gillespie then we wouldn't have Miles Davis. We would just have another Dizzy Gillespie, which would, that would be fine too, but there is something about dealing with your limitations and I think that's where you find your own sound. I'm not sure if that makes sense, Fred.
AAJ: In a time of parody and conformity, you have developed your own distinctive approach to the instrument, are you still maturing as a guitarist?
BF: Yeah, it is still just this everyday taking these tiny, tiny steps and sometimes not even knowing if you're taking a step. In so many ways, it feels the same now when I play as the very first time I picked up the instrument. There's always this sound out there that's just a little bit beyond my reach and I'm trying to get there and that just sort of keeps me going. But I can't really pinpoint one moment where I found a sound or something. It's always been this real slow, gradual, day-by-day process. So even now, I don't know if I do have a sound. It's more I'm trying to get there and then I hear people say that they can recognize my sound, but it's hard for me, looking from my side of it, to really know where I'm at with that because it still feels like I'm trying to get there.
AAJ: Because I do not create anything, I am constantly in awe of any artist. The thought of creating a significant contribution to the art form is daunting. An artist has to establish his or her own motivation, whereas I am motivated by salary. Have there ever been days where you are drained by the creation process?
BF: Yeah, it is. It's always this kind of up and down thing. For me, I have to just keep doing it all the time and then within that, you have your, some days, nothing happens and then the next day, something will come out. That's sort of always happening, but I guess I'm trying to keep pounding away at it. A lot of times, when it's time for me to have a deadline or when there's something coming up that I have to have something finished, that definitely motivates me to get it done, but I also, it feels like I'm always drawing on, I have sort of an accumulation of stuff that I try to keep working on stuff all the time. Sometimes you write something down and it seems like it's nothing. It's just kind of a worthless, nothing really happening, but I will save it and then leave it and then when it gets time where I have to come up with something, I go back and I look through all these old scraps of paper. Sometimes when you find some of that stuff after you haven't seen it for a while, it seems like it's not so bad after all. That seems like that's where a lot of my stuff comes from.
AAJ: Do you spend much time composing?
BF: Well, I think more over the last, oh, boy, even maybe the last twenty years or so, when I have time to sit down, that's what I do, rather than practicing the guitar. I know I'm a guitarist and I have the guitar around all the time, but I don't sit there and practice scales and things. I used to be more concerned with just the instrument. Now, it's more about just trying to write or trying to create a context for my band. That's all I do, really, is write, I guess, one way or another.
FJ: Do you foresee a time when you will put down the guitar and focus on composing?
BF: I mean, every once and a while, I've done, it doesn't happen very often, but I do things where I've just written something. I wrote a little orchestra piece for a film or I wrote an arrangement for Elvis Costello one time, where I was just completely writing without having the guitar at all or where I didn't play. I don't know. I still feel like it's so much a part of my, it really feels like the guitar is sort of like my voice or something. I wouldn't want to give it up. I just have too much fun playing it. And just playing live, I just love doing that.
AAJ: As a composer, my homage to Cameron Crowe, do you need to be in love to write a ballad or do you need to have been to Paris to write a French song?
BF: Well, I think you just need to write about yourself. That's all I think I'm doing or that's what I'm trying to do is just try to get stuff to come out that reflects. It's not a conscious thing. I don't think now I am going to write a piece about something. It's just this, music sort of bubbles up from down there somewhere and I write it down. Hopefully, it's some kind of honest expression of where I've been throughout my life.
AAJ: Is that your dog on the cover of your Good Dog, Happy Man release?
BF: Oh, yeah.
AAJ: The track, "Shenandoah," has a reflective melancholy and I find that it suits a rainy day.
BF: Yeah, that one, that was actually Ry Cooder, that was sort of a weird combination of all these events coming together in one place. I was kind of hoping I could play with Ry, like sort of as a guest on the record and he's really good friends with Jim Keltner and so Jim introduced me to Ry and then Ry sort of had the idea that we would do that song because of a version of it that he had heard Johnny Smith play that song, this older guitarist. I had known Johnny Smith years ago in Colorado and so there was all these kind of weird things converging on that tune that sort of said we had to do it. So when I told Ry that I actually knew Johnny Smith, it was like, "Oh, we've got to do this song." The whole thing about that tune is, I guess, it was written during the, it's really old, like during the Civil War when these, something about these soldiers that went way out West and they were wanting to go back home to that Shenandoah Valley or whatever it is. I think it's in Virginia or West Virginia or something. I don't know exactly all the details, but there is definitely this kind of feeling of being really far away from home and wanting to go back. That's kind of built into the way the song was originally written.
AAJ: I know how much touring you do, are there moments in between the applause and the traveling when you miss your own Shenandoah?
BF: Oh, yeah. Well, I guess, I either miss home and my wife and my daughter. I have a daughter whose has just turned fifteen and I have to be away from them a lot, so I miss them. But then you can also miss, well, just the other day, actually, Fred, I went back to, I did a recording in Colorado. I grew up in Denver. I hardly ever go back there. So there is all kinds of segments of my life that I miss.
AAJ: With all the benefits of fame and the lauding of notoriety, it seems there are unspoken sacrifices as well.
AAJ: Are there days you regret your chosen path?
BF: No, not really. It just sort of felt like this is what I had to do. And then I've been really lucky with the people that, I've been married for twenty-one years and my wife has been, has stuck with it all this time. I wish I could have spent more time with my daughter, but then, sometimes I think, the times that I am home, I'm really home. I guess there's guys that you could work nine to five and end up seeing your kids less than I see my daughter in some ways.
AAJ: On your last handful of recordings, the steel guitar is a prominent voice.
BF: Well, it's definitely the instrument, but I was going to say that so much of it is the personality of Greg Leisz, the way his instincts work so well with mine. We can both play really freely and openly, like we don't have to hold back anything. Somehow it seems to fit together without getting in each other's way. It's almost like he's the other half of my brain working. He's just really easy to play with. So it is sort of like a sound, as far as it feels like he's being a continuation of my own sound or something. He's really fun to play with.
AAJ: It has been a while since you done an album with horns, which you do on your latest recording for the Nonesuch label, Blues Dream.
BF: Oh, I guess you just get that little extra charge from hearing everything all orchestrated out. It is really thrilling to hear stuff, ideas that you have and maybe you just play them on the guitar and then you get to hear them orchestrated in a bigger way. It's just really a thrill.
AAJ: Are you touring for the record?
BF: Well, not, we've done a couple things with that whole group, but my regular working group is with Greg Leisz, David Piltch and Kenny Wolleson, a quartet. We will be doing a lot of, we have been and we will do more, but probably less with the horn section, just cause it's so many people to try to get together. We did a few gigs last year with that whole group. We played at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Yoshi's in Oakland. So I hope we will be able to do a little bit, but it's really hard to do a whole, full blown tour with that many people.
AAJ: Is there such thing as a perfect performance?
BF: Oh, no (laughing). No, it's never close. Definitely, there's ones that feel great, but there is always something more to do. I can't even imagine how that could even be possible.
AAJ: Seems like you are chasing the dream.
BF: Yeah, it's always like that. Not to say that it's not like it's, there's definitely times when I really get excited and it feels great, but there's still, in the midst of that, there's still this struggle going on to.
AAJ: You are in the studio now recording your next Nonesuch project.
BF: Yeah, just finishing this thing. It's a thing I did with a banjo player, he's from Texas and he moved. I met him in Seattle. He moved up there. It's just banjo and bass. Keith Lowe is the bassist, who also lives in Seattle. I don't know how to describe what this is (laughing). We do a lot of old tunes and some of my tunes.
AAJ: Like many key figures in this music, you tend to polarize critics. Some praise you as the next principal voice on the guitar and others can't find enough about it that's wrong. Does that dichotomy weigh on you?
BF: I mean, I try not to, but I can't help but pay attention to the stuff actually, but I know that I'm really the only one that really knows how close I'm coming to getting at what I'm trying to get at. It can go both ways. You can have a really good, positive review, but they completely miss the point. I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff because I'm really the only one that knows if I'm getting there or not. It's nice to have people say nice things about you and it doesn't feel that great if they don't like it (laughing).
AAJ: Since at the end of the day, you are the only qualified judge to critique your work, is it difficult to sleep at night?
BF: Oh, no, not for that (laughing). I guess the times I get frustrated is when I'm not, if there's all kinds of other stuff going on and I can't get to just doing the work that I should be doing. I think when I'm most happy is when I'm really immersed in the music as much as possible.