Bill Frisell: Ramping It Up
"It's just this gigantic world of music that's floating aroundnot just in my head, but it's out there," Frisell continues. "When I get going playing, I'm just grabbing at all these things, but from moment to moment, it changes. As I'm answering here, I'm not sure if I've ever really thought about it; it's impossible to describe. There's just always something there that you're reaching for, but it does changea lot. And it so much has to do with the people I'm with. I played clarinet when I was growing up, and the experience I had playing in bands and orchestras and the few times I played in a woodwind quintetI remember the feeling when you got a blend with the other people and the feel of those instruments together in a room. The way 858 plays together, it's not that different from when I was in high school playing in a woodwind quintet, in a way. I much prefer that, and am more sensitive to that than the artificiality of having everything in monitors and amplified. I mean, I still do thatthat's the way of the world we live inbut it's being generated more from this sensibility. ... Even if it's a rock band playing loud, there's still this thing that, for me, comes from that sound of people playing in a room."
An issue that is raised regularly about Friselland the softer, more lyrical nature of Sign of Life, as opposed to some of the more angular and jagged music on Richter 858 is sure to bring it up againis the idea that he's somehow lost his edge. True, his recent music has not been as aggressive as some of his earlier music, like his Nonesuch debut, Before We Were Born (1989), but the idea that Frisell's music is somehow less adventurous is as puzzling to him as the seeming need to define his career in periods. "For me, all those things [his varied musical interests] have been pretty much there as long as I've been recording," Frisell says. "I don't really think of it that way, but if I'm cornered and have to think about it, all the stuff has always been there. I always get uncomfortable being put into slotsthat first I was an 'ECM' guy, then I was a 'Downtown' guy, and then I was an 'Americana' guy. While I was making ECM records, I was also playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson. All these things have been happening simultaneously.
"But then I went to Nashville," Frisell continues, "and that was a big step for me, just for me to grow, to learn about this other music. That's another thing. In some reviews, maybe because the music was more tonal, they would criticize it, saying I had sold out. For me, it was actually quite a bit more risky. That [Nashville] was one of the most adventurous things I'd ever doneto go to Nashville and play with all these people that I'd never met, to try and find a language to play together with people I didn't knowit was a way for me to look further into the music than where I had come from before.
Beautiful Dreamers, from left: Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston
"Just because I turn on a distortion box, does that give it an edge?" Frisell puzzles. "It's weird, I don't know; maybe, I guess. It's so personal and private, what a musician is really doing. I'm the only one who really knows what I'm trying to do. I could be doing something that's internally extremely difficult, and it could be something simple. There's something about just playing a major chordthere's a million ways you can do that, there's all kinds of intensity that can happen."
byas he recalls someone saying about the influential octogenarian guitarist"'using an amp so he can play quieter.'" Frisell explains, "I want my attention to be fully on them. Sometimes people in the audience get pissed off, saying, 'Why don't you face the audience; I want to see what your fingers are doing,'all that kinda stuff. But it totally doesn't make sense for me to play music that way. I'm making the music for the people to hear, but to get to it I have to be absolutely focused on the people that I'm with."