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Bill Frisell: Ramping It Up

By Published: April 25, 2011
"That's just been the nature of music," Frisell continues. "I've said it before. I'm 60 years old, but when I pick it [a guitar] up, it doesn't feel very different from the very first time I touched a guitar. You grab hold of this thing, and you think, 'Man, what I am I gonna do.' You're sort of imagining this thing, and you're trying to get it, and you just go for it somehow, but you can never get it. Every day of my life for the last 50 years, I've been trying to get this thing that always stays just a little bit beyond my reach. It's a weird thing with music. I know it's easy to get intimidated or discouraged by that, but you have to get comfortable with the idea that you're never going to get there; that's just part of what it is.

"It's just this gigantic world of music that's floating around—not 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 change—a 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 quintet—I 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 that—that's the way of the world we live in—but 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."

Jim Hall
Jim Hall
Jim Hall
1930 - 2013
by—as 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."

An issue that is raised regularly about Frisell—and 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 again—is 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 slots—that 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 done—to 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 know—it 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 chord—there's a million ways you can do that, there's all kinds of intensity that can happen."

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