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Music and the Creative Spirit

Bill Frisell: The Quiet Genius

By Published: June 24, 2009
BF: I think it's always been there and it was the same when Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
came along. Dixieland musicians wanted everything to stay the same and would put his music down. Additionally, it seems that retro traditionalist stuff has become where all the money and power is and perhaps that wasn't the case before. But there have always been people that would resist progress but I'm not sure because I wasn't around in the '40s to experience that. But I do think history keeps repeating itself.

LP: Are we spending too much time documenting the past with little regard for the present?

BF: I feel there is more information now than there ever was. In the late '60s, there was Berklee in Boston but there really wasn't a school where you could get a major in jazz. Of course it's like you said, it's all based on the past. Though there wasn't an Internet, you could find places to hang out and it was an obscure way of uncovering information. It was difficult to find tunes or written music, and if you could find the records, you still had to transcribe the material. There is so much available now, though perhaps not right on the cutting edge. With computers, you can now find out about some guy doing something in Turkey or Mexico and communicate with them instantly where before, you had to go to that place and find those people. However, there's something to be said about actually being with a person where you can slow things down and try to learn directly from a person rather than getting it from a book or computer. That's something that's kind of scary because it's really a different thing to sit with somebody and know what they smell like and everything else. It's really different than figuring it out from a CD or a book.

LP: I read a quote that was attributed to you that reads, "Rather than as a style, I see jazz as a way of attacking music." Could you expand on those thoughts?

From left: Ron Carter, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell

BF: In the '60s, jazz was this constantly living evolving thing and when you went out and bought the new Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
record, you would see the whole history, the whole map of everything moving ahead. You'd buy a new record and that was part of what it was. You'd learn about the history but it hadn't stagnated or solidified into this one thing. Part of the deal was that if you played jazz, it was understood that you had to understand the history but were supposed to figure out a way to move it ahead. So you would think about the process and copy people but you would try to imagine what these musicians were thinking or look at what they did from record to record or how did they get from this point to that point. What rules did they break or what happened that made things move and then I would try to imagine what could I do to take this and find my own thing with it. That was part of the struggle and still is for me. It seems that in the last few years, priorities have become mixed up and turned into this thing. OK, jazz is this and to do it correctly, you have to wear a suit, look a certain way, and have to follow all these rules and stay within certain parameters. That's just not what it's about for me. So people ask, "Is what you're playing now jazz?" I mean, I don't know what it is I'm playing, it's just music. But I still feel as if it's coming more from jazz than anything else, even if it doesn't sound like it. Even if it sounds more country and western or whatever kind of style it sounds like. I still think the inner workings come more from jazz than anywhere else.

LP: Is it possible that because no one has heard a jazz musician pull from the country and western genre that they cannot relate it to jazz?

BF: It's all happened before. Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
made that record Way Out West and I used to listen a lot to Gary Burton
Gary Burton
Gary Burton
's music who made a record called Tennessee Firebird in the '60s, which is the exact thing that I did. So it's not like I did anything new. I shouldn't take credit for that.

LP: For me, it's kind of all what happened to the saxophone when it was introduced to classical music. It wasn't respected by the classical community because the sound of the sax was so closely related to jazz.

BF: Right, and it has nothing to do with the outside sheen of the thing. You have to listen through or past the edge of it.

LP: And the guitar is so closely related to so many other things.

BF: Yeah, just the sound of the guitar can't help but bring to mind other things. It's so easy for it to resonate or associate it with all the pop music or non-jazz stuff.

LP: Karlheinz Stockhausen said that the artist has long been regarded as the individual who reflected the spirit of their time. That there have always been different kinds of artists: Those that are a mirror of their time, and the very few who have visionary power. It is possible that what's happening in creative music is too diverse and forward-thinking for much of our society?

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