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Bill Frisell: Ramping It Up

By Published: April 25, 2011
"I don't even really know how it works, exactly," Frisell reveals. "Sometimes I might have four clearly defined individual parts, but I might not say who should play what. We just start playing, and the really quick, instinctual kinds of decisions that these guys are making about who's playing what changes from night to night. Everybody knows what everybody else is playing; everybody has the same information. It's not arranged in a fixed way, so it's more of this spontaneous arranging kind of thing, and it really amazes me. Every time we get back together after some time apart, I'm worried about how I'm going to get this together, how am I gonna figure this out; and then we just start playing, and it's almost like magic the way it happens.

"I write the notes down, so I guess I compose it in a way, but I wanted to make note of that [how 858 arranges the music] in the liner notes: that it's not like I have this stuff all figured out, and they're reading it down—the line between what's composed and arranged, and orchestrated and all that. ... I love that sometimes there's an obviously featured instrument, but mostly, everybody's just playing together at the same time, and it's not really figured out, not worked out so much.

"We're all friends, and there's this understanding and trust," Frisell concludes. "I don't have to explain anything. Everybody that I've been playing with lately, it's not like I've got something to show them—I'm looking for them to show me something. There nothing to figure out; we don't have to talk about it, we just start playing. I don't have a fixed idea in my head—I mean, I'm hearing something in my head, but I thrive on it always mutating. We all have that attitude that every time we play, we're going to try to find something else in there, something that we haven't found before."

With every show recorded by Frisell's road manager, Claudia Engelhart, there's the possibility to listen back after a performance, as some groups do, to try and assess what worked and what didn't. But Frisell steadfastly avoids doing so. "I just never listen to this stuff," he explains emphatically. "When you have a really good night, one of the biggest traps somehow—and I guess that's why I don't like to listen back—is that you can get attached to something. Whether it's good or bad, if you're thinking about something that happened before, then it takes you one step away from being in that moment when things are happening, when it's supposed to be happening. When you have a night where some sort of unbelievable transcendental amazing thing happens, the hardest thing is: if you're thinking about that the next night, you're bound not to get it happening. You just can't be attached to anything, and the only way to have it happening is if you're really right there, right then."

Frisell's approach has evolved over the years, but it's clear when following his music that there's something, some sound, that the guitarist is hearing and trying to reach—from his first release as a leader, 1983's In Line (ECM), through Nonesuch recordings like his "covers" album, 1993's Have a Little Faith (one of the most eclectic sets of covers ever released, placing Aaron Copland and Charles Ives beside Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
, John Hiatt and Madonna), his watershed 1996 recording, Nashville, and more recent fare like Unspeakable. Sometimes he applies a bevy of effects processing, as he did in his early days with ECM on albums like saxophonist Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
sax, tenor
's Paths, Prints (1982) or bassist Eberhard Weber
Eberhard Weber
Eberhard Weber
's Later That Evening, released the same year; at other times, his sound is completely unaffected—just a guitar plugged into an amplifier, the approach Frisell uses, for the most part, on Sign of Life.

"Even from day to day, it changes," Frisell reveals. "It's so liquid, this thing that's out there. Sometimes it can be this real guitar-ish thing—like I'm hearing the sound of some old Telecaster in my head or I'm hearing Scotty Moore playing with Elvis Presley—but then the next moment, I'm hearing an orchestra in my head or somebody singing or drums.

Bill Frisell (left) and Hank Roberts, at the Sign of Life recording sessions

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