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Bill Frisell Interview: The Textural Minimalist Redefines American Music

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It feels, when I write, like there's this big ocean of melodies that's always floating by, and writing for me, is like sitting there being quiet and trying to grab those things out of the air.
This article was first published at All About Jazz on March 2001.

It's safe to say, the great American composer/improviser has a new face. Formerly more likely to have been two different people, one committed to the quiet focused existence of composition at a piano while the other roaming the stages of the world, expressing beauty and fighting personal demons. When one considers this prospect, Frisell might not be the first to mind, but rather a Copeland, Sousa, Williams, Goldsmith or even Carla Bley}, as the former. As for improvisers, it would likely be names such as Miles, Trane, Shorter, Henderson, Brecker, Jarrett and Corea.

But it's a different age now. An age where an eclectic nature and an affinity for stylistic diversity pervades. While once residing on opposite ends of that continuum—composer and soloist—the cloistered scribe and sweat-soaked bopsmith now are as likely to exist as a singularity. Frisell could hardly be farther from the Hollywood version of either. Often appearing lost in thoughts of the moment onstage, Bill then glances at his bandmates as much to show appreciation for them having shared the stage with him as for an unexpected connection of interplay they were all just a part of. Each gig and recording seemingly takes him farther yet into an uncharted but familiar feeling realm of creation he can only glimpse at first. But knowing his way around as he does, Frisell knows enough to have a little faith that he'll once again successfully arrive, stand and deliver.

The list of artists who have experienced his eclectic, eloquent efforts is as varied as they are thankful to have been a part of the experience. The short list says it all and includes Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Jim Hall, Eberhard Weber, Mike Stern, John Scofield, David Sanborn, Marc Johnson, Peter Erskine, Joey Baron, Paul Bley, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and Ginger Baker.

Beyond the side gigs are disparate projects including the re-scoring of two Buster Keaton movies, two animated features with his friend cartoonist Gary Larson, work with poet Allen Ginsberg and occasional side work with pianist Wayne Horvitz (Zony Mash) and vocalist Robin Holcomb.

One distinct hallmark of who Frisell really is seen in the fact that more than many of his peers he's stayed true to his roots in pop, rock, bluegrass with sometimes a "jazz" influence only apparent in the interplay and improvisation. Its integrity and honesty that's clearly present if an agenda exists at all.

Frisell's latest disc, Blues Dream stands as a testament to a continued evolution and a remarkably varied and healthy career as it continues to define and refine American music from the fringes. It's not your father's Oldsmobile, but maybe it should be.

All About Jazz: Did you get to watch the Grammy last night?

Bill Frisell: A little bit (laughs). I was waiting for the last... I wanted to see the Eminem thing... I got to see some of it. Right at that moment I had to go—I'm in the studio and there's a TV upstairs and we're working downstairs, and right when it was gonna come on I had to go downstairs.

AAJ: (laughs) Oh, really? It was great. I hope somebody taped it for you.

What are you working on?

BF: Well, I did a record with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland that I'm really excited about and I'm just mixing that now.

AAJ: What kind of tunes did you do?

BF: It's my stuff; most of it. There are a couple other things. We do "Moon River" and an old Steven Foster song.

AAJ: Sounds great. When will it be released?

BF: I'm not sure. I hope it won't be too long. I mean, my new record (Blues Dream) just came out so... it's a little hard for them (Nonesuch) to put stuff out, you know, more than one a year, but I don't know.

AAJ: Yeah. Sounds like you're a little too prolific for them.

BF: Well, sometimes it gets backed up.

AAJ: What are your first memories of hearing music and specifically the guitar? What led you to that instrument?

BF: Oh boy. Well, I guess, really the guitar goes way back to when I was five years old; the main thing I remember is when my family first got a television, around 1955 or '56 or something like that, and the Mickey Mouse Club was on TV, and I would wait for this moment when Jimmy the leader would come on at the end of the show and sing a song with his guitar—I was really fascinated with that. I remember at that time I took a piece of cardboard and cut it out into the shape of a guitar and put rubber bands on it. So it kind of goes way back there. But then it was a few years later when the surf kind of stuff was happening; you know, the kid across the street had a guitar and it just seemed like more and more friends of mine were getting guitars and then by the time the Beatles came along it was like everyone played the guitar.

AAJ: Exactly. So, who have been your major influences? I guess the Beatles would be in there.

BF: That would be huge... throughout that time in the early '60s. They had these shows on TV: Shindig and Hullabaloo and all that stuff. And just looking at the instruments... I'd even watch the Lawrence Welk Show just to get a glimpse of the guitarist playing.

AAJ: Did you have a musical family?

BF: Well, not really, but both my parents played a little bit of piano and my father played bass and tuba when he was a kid. They liked music and that's where I feel really lucky, they always were really supportive of me trying to play, you know. I remember some of my friends in high school would have to sneak out of their house to do what we were doing. But my parents were always real cool about it.

AAJ: (laughs). Whatever it takes. I think the first time I heard you was when I first came to Berklee... it must've been '81 or '82—you were with Eberhard Weber.

BF: Oh, wow, you heard that?

AAJ: It was a great group.

BF: Was it Jan Garbarek?

AAJ: Yeah.

BF: Wow, that's almost 20 years ago.

AAJ: Just about. What was that group like for you? You were using the volume pedal a lot. I want to say it was Johnathan Swift's (Harvard Square, Cambridge) but I'm not sure.

BF: That sounds right.

AAJ: It was an awesome experience 'cause I had just come up from Texas and had never seen anything like that.

BF: I mean, that was one of the first kind of... it wasn't even a big tour but we played around the States—that was the first time that I traveled around the States.

AAJ: Didn't you do Europe, too?

BF: Yeah. There was a lot of Europe and that was already kind of happening. It seemed like I was always playing in Europe starting from a couple of years just before that. That was an unusual thing to get to go... well, not Boston. I played in Boston a lot 'cause I went to school there but I forget where all we went... Iowa, Nashville...

AAJ: Well, that's come full circle.

BF: Yeah. That was an exciting time for me.

AAJ: I'm sure. It was like the first major gig?

BF: Yeah, and the first recordings really were all happening around that time.

AAJ: Do you have some early recordings you're most proud of?

BF: I like all that stuff (laughs). I started playing with Paul Motian even before that. You know, it was just such an exciting time for me to get to play on those records. It wasn't just a few years before that I never even dreamed I'd ever play on any records.

AAJ: Oh, I know. There's that time and there's that time where it seems like you've always been doing it. What was your experience like at Berklee?

BF: It was great. Well, I actually went there twice. I went in 1971. I went for one semester and at that time I totally didn't / couldn't (laughs) relate to it at all. That was right when I was getting seriously into Jazz and Jim Hall, and becoming a real jazz-snob / purist (laughs). I just had this little period and somehow being there at that time didn't fit into what I was thinking. When I went back in '75 everything really clicked—I knew my way around and was able to test out of some of the classes (laughs). I sort of got around/didn't have to go through a lot of junk to get to where I wanted to be. Teachers like Herb Pomeroy (great jazz arranger) I wish I could take those classes again, those were just incredible. Mike Gibbs was a really great teacher.

AAJ: Oh, you know Gerry Gibbs, Terry's son has a group and he plays here; he lives here.

BF: Really? Where do you live?

AAJ: San Antonio. You're going to be coming to Austin, right, in a couple of months.

BF: Yeah. I guess twice, I think, which is amazing.

AAJ: Twice?

BF: Both in April and May. Once is with a trio and once is with a quartet. Its great they're letting us come. I was trying to get some gigs for both of these groups and they said well why don't you come both times.

AAJ: Is it both the Continental?

BF: Yeah. It's both times there.

AAJ: So the groups are not the same.

BF: It's the same drummer, Kenny Wollesen but one time is a trio with Tony Scherr playing bass and then the next time is Greg Leisz and David Piltch who are on my new record.

AAJ: Is Brian Blade not playing one of those gigs?

BF: Oh man... you know... it's possible. Normally, Kenny plays and there are a few gigs that Brian's gonna play, so you might know better me.

AAJ: I just looked at the website, that's all, so that's as much as I know (laughs). Yeah, I saw you at the Continental (Austin) with the Nashville Quartet and that was just amazing.

BF: Yeah, that was fun. I really like that club and the audience was cool.

AAJ: You actually took some lessons from Jim Hall?

BF: That was way back in 1971.

AAJ: Did that have an effect?

BF: Oh yeah. Well, it still is, actually. There's stuff he talked about then that I'll still never be able to do, you know. Just all kinds of things... either technical things, harmonic things. Just music in general. He still sets a really high standard. But that was just incredible.

AAJ: Have you always heard in your head the way you sound now and then you just kind of worked it out or did it evolve? I mean, how would you describe the process?

BF: Well, no it's just a constant state... in a lot of ways it feels exactly the same (laughs) as in the very beginning. There's just this constant struggle to reach something that you can't quite... get. And that never changes. I guess if it stopped feeling like that then you wouldn't do anything.

AAJ: I mean, do you get to a point where your sound is set?

BF: Well, no, it never feels that way. It always feels... as I get older I can sort of look back and think well five years ago I was striving for something and maybe I'm close to that now, but when you're right in the midst of trying to do it, it just never feels like you're quite there (laughs). It's just always this, at least for me, I'm always hearing this sound that's just a little bit out of my grasp and I guess that's what really makes the sound (laughs), you know, but you never quite get there.

AAJ: How do you approach composing?

BF: It's more a matter of spending the time just sitting there doing it. I used to do it more when I was out traveling, but now it seems like I need to be home. It feels, when I write, like there's this big ocean of melodies that are always floating by, and writing for me, is like sitting there being quiet and trying to grab those things out of the air. It's hard for me to write... on command or write something that's pre-conceived... you know like if someone says: "ok, write a sad song" or "write a fast song" I don't really do it that way, I just sort of do it and take stock of it later and figure out what it is. So I've got a lot of junk; sort of accumulate all these little scraps of things.

AAJ: Oh man. I know how that is.

BF: Yeah. (laughs). Then when it's time to do something I try to shuffle through all this stuff.

AAJ: Is scoring for film cues different for you?

BF: Well, I haven't done so much of it... you know, when I do my own record, I just do what I want and then people decide what it is, but this [film scoring] is where you have to answer to somebody.

AAJ: With your own group there is no wrong answer.

BF: Right. Also just being specific for trying to find a certain mood for a certain scene and that's where I draw on and also try to find things I've already written—if I have a big pile of little melodies, I'll think, "well, maybe this one'll fit with this."

AAJ: I think some of my favorite side projects are the ones you're on. I mean, Summer Running (Marc Johnson) is probably one of my favorite records of all time. Can you talk about that project—how that came about?

BF: Oh yeah... it was really cool to get to play with Pat. I'd known him since when I went to Berklee in '75, that's when I met him—we talked about it when I went over to his house to play a couple of times. I had a lesson with him and I've known him for so long and he's actually the guy who introduced me to Paul Motian. Before anybody ever really paid attention to me he was always putting my name out there. You know, like in the early days, he'd have a thing in Guitar Player and he'd say, you know, you should check out this guy... I mean, he's really helped me out a lot. We're not close friends or anything but I've known him for a long time so it was really, really cool to get to finally play. It was just really fun. There was a lot of stuff where we were both just playing. There was a lot of moments where we were just getting the sound of the two guitars just strumming along (laughs)... and that really felt great.

AAJ: Do you think it's something that might happen again in some form?

BF: I hope so. Every once in a while there's talk of something. I hope so someday.

AAJ: How about Mike Stern's latest record, Play, those sessions?

BF: Yeah, that was great, too, 'cause that's somebody from, again, from that time, like '75. Mike and I used to play together almost every day, way back, you know 25 years ago. And then when I first came to New York, we used to play a lot at a club called Seventh Avenue South.

AAJ: Yeah, Mike Brecker's club.

BF: Right, and 55 Grand St. We used to play these places and then there was a long, long period where we hadn't played and so doing that record was the first time we'd played in ten years or so. So it just felt really cool to hook up like that again.

AAJ: Did those records take a lot of rehearsal?

BF: Not really. We had one rehearsal for each one of those things and then just went into the studio. So it was really about playing together—it wasn't too complicated figuring stuff out.

AAJ: There's another record I've always liked: Lyle Mays' first record. I thought that was a great project.

BF: Oh yeah. That was cool, too (laughs). I haven't listened to that in such a long time. He's an incredible musician. That's another guy... I haven't seen him in such a long time—I can't remember the last time I saw him. I hope I run into him one of these days (laughs). Is he getting ready to do more stuff with Pat, right?

AAJ: Yeah, I think he and Pat are writing and I think there's supposed to be a record out for a Summer tour.

BF: It seems like there was a big space where they didn't do anything.

AAJ: I guess Pat was doing the trio thing for almost two years. Did you catch any of that?

BF: Yeah! They sounded great.

AAJ: Saw them in Austin and it was probably one of the best shows I've seen. How about the Bass Desires (Marc Johnson) stuff?

BF: I guess the thing with Pat was, sort of like (laughs) Bass Desires was a precursor to that record. Because again, it was Marc's idea to stick those people together. It was great to get to play with Scofield, you know.

AAJ: Yeah. It's that kind of a rare thing—do you guys get together?

BF: Well we did that for a while and it sort of petered out and then I played on one of his records, Grace Under Pressure. It was a while after that, but we haven't really done much. Time is going so fast.

AAJ: I know, doesn't it seem that way?

BF: It doesn't seem that long ago...

AAJ: I guess it's relative to what you're doing. How does inspiration come about for you?

BF: Oh boy. Inspiration... you have to just have to... sit there and work... and every once in a while if you're lucky something like that will hit you. Or it will happen without you even knowing it. Sometimes I'll be writing something and it seems like nothing, but then I'll come back to it a week later and it's like, what is this thing? And it's actually something good. It's nothing that I can really control, that's for sure. Just trying to keep my attention on the music as much as I can and if it happens it happens.

AAJ: What about you current projects... did you want to say anything about that... Blues Dream?

BF: I'm really happy with that. That's the first recording of the Quartet: Greg Leisz, David Piltch and Kenny Wollesen. Those guys are the guys I've really been playing with the past couple of years and then having all my horn player buddies on there, too. It really felt like a coming together of a lot of things that I've been working on for a long time. I'm glad there's some kind of evidence of that group on a record.

AAJ: What equipment are you using now? Are you using the Kleins over the SG?

BF: Well, actually, lately I've been using this Gibson guitar. Oh yeah, when I was in Austin I guess I was still playing that Klein and then soon after that I had some work done on it and I got this; it's a Gibson 446. It's a hollowbody Les Paul kind of guitar and I was using it while I was waiting for the Klein to get fixed, and I then by the time the Klein came back I was used to the Gibson, so I've just been playing that mostly.

AAJ: What about outboard effects, amps, that kind of thing?

BF: Well, there's an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a little Boss Delay pedal and then a Lexicon MPX-100 Reverb, or something. It's like their cheap multi-effects unit. I just use that mostly for reverb and then I've been using that Line 6 Delay modeller thing quite a bit for like loops and stuff. That's really a cool pedal.

AAJ: And the amps?

BF: At home I have some Boogie amps and I have a little Subway Blues thing; this little amp with a 10" speaker that I really like. Then I have a mid-'60s Princeton (Fender) amp that I like for recording and an old Gibson amp. But when I go out on tour sometimes I'll ask for Boogie amps. Those are good but I can't always get them. I really like those Fender re-issues, like Deluxes and stuff.

AAJ: What about your instructional video. That really was kind of surprising.

BF: Oh, yeah. I wasn't really prepared for that. I hope its not too bad (laughs).

AAJ: I haven't seen it (but have heard it's great).

BF: They tried to set it up so that it would sound like they were just asking me questions and then they edited out the questions so it'd sound like I was talking about something.

AAJ: (laughs)

BF: It was fun to do, like just to play with Kermit (Driscoll) and Joey (Baron), but I guess some people wish it was more specific about certain things, but I don't know if I'm really qualified to do something like that.

AAJ: Well, I'm sure probably more than most. Were you comfortable with it?

BF: I'm not that comfortable speaking that way, you know. I mean, it was cool. They were really great people to work with.

AAJ: Are you working with Joey or Kermit at all lately?

BF: I haven't played with Kermit in a while. Something is bound to happen (laughs). It's weird. We haven't played in a really long time. Joey, a little bit more. Actually, a couple times he's subbed for Kenny in my band lately, too. We're still all best friends and everything, so I'm sure something will turn up.

AAJ: And then I saw on the site that you're doing some duos at the Blue Note with Ron Carter? That's a trip.

BF: Yeah! Yeah, I'm freakin' out about that.

AAJ: Have you ever done that before?

BF: No, no. So I'm kind of scared out of my mind, but it's really inspiring.

AAJ: What do you think you'll do... your stuff? Standards?

BF: I'm not sure. I have to figure that out over the next couple of weeks. It'll probably be standards.

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