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Music and the Creative Spirit

Bill Frisell: The Quiet Genius

By Published: June 24, 2009
BF: There are so many variables in what you just asked. There are visionary people or people who have somehow found their own way into the future, but there are also people rehashing things which have already been done. I think it's hard to know when you are in the midst of a particular time period, and sometimes you don't even know what's happening until the dust clears years later. When most really great music was happening, many people didn't even realize it was happening. Just think of all the Monk, Ornette, or Coltrane records and what people were saying when they first heard this music, and it really wasn't the fault of the industry. Some people got it and some people didn't. I can sometimes get discouraged and think, "Wow, there's no music happening," and it may seem the only music that really gets me going is old stuff, but then there's always somebody doing something somewhere. They might be hiding under a rock somewhere but I think because we are human, it's always kind of going to be underground. There's always something percolating and I still have enough faith in people that something is going to turn up.

LP: How musicians deal with time and their relationship to it doesn't seem to get discussed that often. Your approach is unique in that it conjures up intensity regardless of the tempo that is constantly there. There is a particular tension.

BF: I have always felt that the way musicians play is also the way they talk. I like space and silence in music and it's such an important part of the music of my favorite musicians like Miles and Monk. I think about it a lot, but in the end, it sort of comes down to your physical body which dictates how you do it. Upon hearing a note, a phrase, or some kind of sound, players and listeners need time to figure out what they just heard. You just can't cram everything all together. It's more of an organic unconscious thing which is what happens when you play anyway. You do all this thinking and studying but when you start to play, you have to shake off all that intellectual stuff. What hopefully comes out is from a deeper place.

LP: Regardless of whether you are in a three or an eight piece band, the music has a tension created by your sense of time. It seems to create it's own energy.

BF: Everybody has their own feel for where they place notes. One person is right on it or another person is real even or behind or ahead of the beat. There are as many ways to do it as there are people. It's another thing that's really hard to talk about or describe and another one of those unspoken things with the people I play with. When everyone is playing together and feeling it in the same way or sometimes not feeling it in the same way, there can be a relationship that works. One person can be pulling and the other could be pushing but they are not doing it the same way and it can cause a certain momentum or tension to happen.

LP: Your approach to melody seems unique in that you break it down piece by piece until you are dissecting the elements of sound within the context of melody. Can you explain that process?

BF: When I first started getting into jazz, I studied what was going on with the music theoretically and would look at things more in a mathematical way. I would look at the chords and learn what the chord tones were, what the scales were. But somewhere along the way, I tried to understand all the inner workings of the melody. If the melody isn't there, then it really doesn't mean anything. It's also where it gets harder to explain. With every song, I'm trying to internalize the melody so strong that that's the backbone for everything that I am playing no matter how abstract it becomes. Sometimes I'll just play the melody over and over again and try to vary it slightly. It's really coming from that, like trying to make the melody the thing that's generating all the variations rather than some kind of theoretical mathematical approach.

LP: Could you explain what you mean by internalizing the melody?

BF: It's playing and hearing the melody and not playing anything but the melody until it starts going on inside your body, even without thinking about it. But the older I get, the longer it seems to take to learn new things and get it to the point where it's really deep down in there somehow.

LP: Cecil Taylor said that, "Music has a lot to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor

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