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.