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Bill Frisell: The Quiet Genius


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For me, music is kind of a magic thing. When it's really happening, I'm trying to figure out what it is though I can't really describe it. But the real depth comes when you get caught up in this ocean of music and get swept away.
If there is a given within the music of guitarist Bill Frisell, it's the honest approach in every note he composes and plays. There are no compromises. His magical world of creativity incorporates yet transcends all styles and genres of music, and as one of today's most original and innovative composers, he has created a unique and distinct voice that has developed into his own personal musical language.

Without perhaps trying to do so, Frisell creates the greatest support yet for the argument that jazz doesn't have to be stylized, compartmentalized, or labeled. There is a seamless quality to his compositional approach that weaves between various cultures, generations, and styles within his art form. Bill prefers not to speak about his music but to let it unfold and thereby challenge listeners to find their own interpretation, their own relationship with the music.

Within the depths and at the heart of his creative process, he stays true to the jazz approach, yet on the surface, there lies a musical diversity from many generations of Americana to the music of South America, Europe, and Africa. A brilliant guitarist, one hears influences from Jim Hall to Jimi Hendrix, but to focus on his technical proficiency would be to deny his compositional genius as a painter of sound.

All About Jazz: Has it become more difficult to stay true and honest with your own creative process as you have become more successful?

Bill Frisell: It's kind of a double edge with a lot more of everything, but it can go both ways. There's a lot more distraction but then there are a lot more opportunities to do exactly what I want to do. It's weird when people start noticing you. There are more reviews, more is written, and people start talking about you like what we're doing now. It's not about what the music is really. I remember the very first time I did an interview, I was just petrified. It was for a French magazine and the guy was real nice but I could hardly talk and didn't know what to say. I have done thousands of interviews but I still have difficulty verbalizing. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is this whole other area of activity and I feel I have to be careful as this whole business thing can kind of take over. I'd also like to think I'm not influenced by what people say either negative or positive, but I can't really help noticing what someone says. I'm the only one that really knows what's going on with my music and I try to not let what someone says influence me too much but I'm sure it does. And there was definitely something pure thirty years ago when I was sitting in my little apartment practicing with hardly any gigs and nobody knowing who I was. It was just the music and nothing else. That's changed for sure.

AAJ: You have been with Lee Townsend of Songline/Tonefield Productions for quite awhile, which is kind of unusual within the industry today. That support has to have had a lot of influence in the creative freedom you have been allowed.

BF: Well, definitely, and I know my situation is really rare. Lee is my manager but he also produces a lot of my albums so he has this sort of double function, but I think of him as my friend perhaps before all that other stuff. I have also been with Nonesuch Records since I first came to Seattle, which was about 1988. There are so few artists that are able to stay with the same record company anymore. People get signed and then get dropped or the label goes under. It's so rare that you can have any kind of consistency and it's fortunate that I don't have to worry about it because it can really affect the music, but I also know that it could all fall apart any second. There is probably some guy in a tower with a cigar that gets to say, "Let's get rid of those guys." Nonesuch is just a small part of whatever the company is and I don't even know what it is anymore. Warner, Time Warner? I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't take it for granted because you never know.

AAJ: When people hear your name, they don't think in terms of a style or category anymore, they just think of the Frisell sound. Would it be a more positive approach if the industry would market the music based around the individual artist rather than specific styles or labels?

BF: Boy, I wish it was that way because it feels uncomfortable to be boxed in or labeled and perhaps I have gotten out of it a little bit but I still feel excluded. I feel as if a small victory has been made if someone from another area gets to hear my music. It's frustrating that if it can be one thing that it can't be another, and it doesn't make any sense because hardly any music is just one thing. Pulse magazine had those desert island discs where people were asked to select ten records they would bring to an island. I don't know if it's a reflection of how people have been conditioned, but one person would list ten Rolling Stone records and the next guy would list ten polka records. It was weird. I couldn't believe how narrow some of the listening was. If I had to go to an island and only had ten picks, I would want to listen to different flavors of music and that would seem the most logical thing to do. But we have had it pounded into us and it just doesn't make any sense to me at all.

AAJ: There seems to be a younger crowd, more open to being challenged and checking out creative music today. Are you noticing that?

BF: A couple of weeks ago I was playing with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano at the Village Vangaurd and I noticed the age span of the audience. There were little kids with their parents, students, and there was a gentleman that must have been ninety years old sitting in the front row. It was incredible and really cool. There were all kinds of people and I felt that what I was seeing had nothing to do with what the big machinery puts on us. It seemed like a whole bunch of people that just wanted to listen and it was as simple as that.

AAJ: Have we become a society without the patience to be challenged?

BF: I'm really starting to think the volume of information we receive and the speed it comes at you is overrated. It's not necessarily good. I'm constantly running around from one place to another, and more and more I'm feeling how important it is to stick with one thing. As I get older, it takes me longer to absorb things in a deep way, and I feel that that's what I need to do for the music to really come out in a true way. Subsequently, before the information gets processed, it has to seep way down in me to get absorbed and taken in. I just can't take it in and spit it back out. Part of the reason I came to Seattle was because I wanted to be in a place unlike New York where I would soak up as much information as I could. I needed to slow down and not be in a place where I was constantly bombarded and be able to meditate on what was in there and try to figure out what my own thing was. There was a documentary on Warren Zevon who recently died where he said, and I don't know if this is from him or if he is quoting someone else, "We buy books because we think we are buying the time to read them." I don't know if that does anything for you but it's what I do and what I think a lot of people do. I sometimes think back to the period I was in college and was living in a house with a bunch of friends. We would sit around hour after hour listening to music, and I just don't get a chance to do that much anymore. It's getting harder and harder to get into stuff in a real deep way.

AAJ: Is it more difficult for a student to be creative in today's society?

BF: It's always been difficult, but perhaps it's worse now than it's ever been. But I'm also not sure if it's not the same pattern happening over and over. The people that are doing something different always have to struggle against the easy way somehow. I know it's hard but I'm just not sure if it's more difficult now or just the same pattern going around in a circle.

AAJ: Do you have a philosophy that you try to impart among students or young musicians?

BF: You have to really love what you're doing and just keep trying, staying persistent and keeping at it. Every time I have done something with any kind of ulterior motive other than just for the music, I've always gotten into trouble. I have always tried not to sacrifice any part of the music and kept my focus on what I'm getting out of it musically and I think that's where people get into trouble. They start looking for something other than the music, whether it's for money, girls, or trying to get famous. You start running after something you'll never figure out because you can never figure out what people want you to do. You have to do what you want to do and believe in that and that's all you can do really. I know there are pressures and it's not easy, but it's just a disaster if you start running around trying to figure out what somebody else thinks is right.

AAJ: Do traditionalists have a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American" now has more international and diverse aspects within it?

BF: I think it's always been there and it was the same when Charlie Parker came along. Dixieland musicians wanted everything to stay the same and would put his music down. Additionally, it seems that retro traditionalist stuff has become where all the money and power is and perhaps that wasn't the case before. But there have always been people that would resist progress but I'm not sure because I wasn't around in the '40s to experience that. But I do think history keeps repeating itself.

AAJ: Are we spending too much time documenting the past with little regard for the present?

BF: I feel there is more information now than there ever was. In the late '60s, there was Berklee in Boston but there really wasn't a school where you could get a major in jazz. Of course it's like you said, it's all based on the past. Though there wasn't an Internet, you could find places to hang out and it was an obscure way of uncovering information. It was difficult to find tunes or written music, and if you could find the records, you still had to transcribe the material. There is so much available now, though perhaps not right on the cutting edge. With computers, you can now find out about some guy doing something in Turkey or Mexico and communicate with them instantly where before, you had to go to that place and find those people. However, there's something to be said about actually being with a person where you can slow things down and try to learn directly from a person rather than getting it from a book or computer. That's something that's kind of scary because it's really a different thing to sit with somebody and know what they smell like and everything else. It's really different than figuring it out from a CD or a book.

AAJ: I read a quote that was attributed to you that reads, "Rather than as a style, I see jazz as a way of attacking music." Could you expand on those thoughts?

BF: In the '60s, jazz was this constantly living evolving thing and when you went out and bought the new Miles Davis record, you would see the whole history, the whole map of everything moving ahead. You'd buy a new record and that was part of what it was. You'd learn about the history but it hadn't stagnated or solidified into this one thing. Part of the deal was that if you played jazz, it was understood that you had to understand the history but were supposed to figure out a way to move it ahead. So you would think about the process and copy people but you would try to imagine what these musicians were thinking or look at what they did from record to record or how did they get from this point to that point. What rules did they break or what happened that made things move and then I would try to imagine what could I do to take this and find my own thing with it. That was part of the struggle and still is for me. It seems that in the last few years, priorities have become mixed up and turned into this thing. OK, jazz is this and to do it correctly, you have to wear a suit, look a certain way, and have to follow all these rules and stay within certain parameters. That's just not what it's about for me. So people ask, "Is what you're playing now jazz?" I mean, I don't know what it is I'm playing, it's just music. But I still feel as if it's coming more from jazz than anything else, even if it doesn't sound like it. Even if it sounds more country and western or whatever kind of style it sounds like. I still think the inner workings come more from jazz than anywhere else.

AAJ: Is it possible that because no one has heard a jazz musician pull from the country and western genre that they cannot relate it to jazz?

BF: It's all happened before. Sonny Rollins made that record Way Out West and I used to listen a lot to Gary Burton's music who made a record called Tennessee Firebird in the '60s, which is the exact thing that I did. So it's not like I did anything new. I shouldn't take credit for that.

AAJ: For me, it's kind of all what happened to the saxophone when it was introduced to classical music. It wasn't respected by the classical community because the sound of the sax was so closely related to jazz.

BF: Right, and it has nothing to do with the outside sheen of the thing. You have to listen through or past the edge of it.

AAJ: And the guitar is so closely related to so many other things.

BF: Yeah, just the sound of the guitar can't help but bring to mind other things. It's so easy for it to resonate or associate it with all the pop music or non-jazz stuff.

AAJ: Karlheinz Stockhausen said that the artist has long been regarded as the individual who reflected the spirit of their time. That there have always been different kinds of artists: Those that are a mirror of their time, and the very few who have visionary power. It is possible that what's happening in creative music is too diverse and forward-thinking for much of our society?

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.

AAJ: 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.

AAJ: 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.

AAJ: 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.

AAJ: 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.

AAJ: 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 describes?

BF: Well, I'm hoping it's coming from that place that he's talking about. That's what I'm trying to get at but, like he said, there's all that stuff like discipline. For me, music is kind of a magic thing. When it's really happening, I'm trying to figure out what it is though I can't really describe it. But the real depth comes when you get caught up in this ocean of music and get swept away.

AAJ: How much of your compositional approach would you say comes from musical intellect versus intuition or instinct?

BF: It can come from both, though ideally when writing, I won't even think about it. I may not know what to do at first and will start with an intellectual exercise that will get me going and lead into a place where I don't know where I'm headed. It's the same way when I'm playing. The best stuff seems to come when things are not figured out, but it can be such a mixture. I'll write and accumulate a lot of little things and if I have the time, I'll write everyday. Those little things will add up but are not fully formed but come from musical thoughts floating by. When it's time for a project to be done, it becomes a little more intellectual in that I'll take these bits and try to stick them together and try to actually see what they are. See if it will work or maybe add things to it or harmonize something in a certain way but the raw material always seems to come from a more mysterious place.

AAJ: This is a quote from Miles Davis: "You have to pick out the most important note that fertilizes the sound. It makes the sound grow. It's like putting lemon on fish or vegetables. It brings out the flavor. Your sound is like your sweat." Are you getting closer to the sound that you hear or does it keep changing?

BF: Every time I try to play a note, I just can't quite seem to get it. I move closer but can never really get it and it's a constant struggle all of the time. But music has always felt like that. I used to think that there would be a time when it would just become good or that everything would feel wonderful all the time. But that's not in the nature and there's always this infinite way to go. But if there weren't, there wouldn't be any reason to play anymore. It would be boring. But it can also be frustrating, and it took me awhile to learn what that feeling was. It would seem that it could kind of flip people out to where they would quit playing and never really get there.

AAJ: You play with a diversity of musicians and are getting ready to collaborate with Sam Yahel and Brian Blade. What goes into consideration when determining whom you want to play with?

BF: I don't know how I choose people to play with, but so much of it has to do with the person and the feel I get from being around them. Of course I want to play with great musicians, but there has to be a feeling. I can usually tell before we have played a note if it's going to feel good when we play, just by what it feels like standing next to them. I met and played with Sam through Brian a couple of years ago. We played only one song for a benefit concert and it felt so good and I have been trying to figure out a way of how we could get together again. And Brian is one of those guys that is so open, giving, and everything he plays just makes you feel good. He's just one of my favorite musicians and you can tell how much he loves it.

AAJ: You have done two projects with visual artists. The projects were based upon the works of Gerhard Richter and Jim Woodring. Is there a relationship in your music to what you see visually?

BF: I tried to let the paintings dictate or determine the structure of what I was writing, but I also tried to take into account Richter's way of working. I have never met him but I viewed a documentary on him and read a lot of the things he had to say and he seemed to struggle with a lot of the same things that a musician does. A lot of his paintings are done with a lot of improvisation and he struggles to know when to stop or the moment you know it's there. If you go too far then you've lost it. When we recorded the music, we did it all live and it was just one take from beginning to end, and that was definitely influenced by thinking about the way he painted rather than going back to mix or fix things. With Jim Woodring, I was writing for the images but I also felt we had this common unexplainable thing and really understood each other and the music would happen in a very abstract way in the same way that his paintings do. I guess it's different because we're close friends but just comparing those individual things; there is a different feel because of that.

AAJ: Where does your inspiration come from or what influences your creativity?

BF: It's still from music and musicians, but I guess I'm becoming more aware that it can come from anywhere. Looking out the window, going for a walk, or just feeling a certain way. It could be from just about anywhere. It's just being a human really. Music is just a reflection of whatever we are as people. If I stay wound up in a room and am thinking about nothing but notes and chords, after a while it really doesn't mean anything.

AAJ: What have you learned about yourself throughout your career?

BF: I just feel—so lucky. Like I won the lottery and I'm being allowed to do all of this stuff. That's what's amazing to me. When I was younger, I always dreamed about being able to record and have gigs and now it's actually happening and it sometimes just seems too good to be true. I don't really know what I've learned because with music, it's never ending and in so many ways, it still feels like the first time I tried to play.

AAJ: Is it possible to put into words what you are trying to do with your music?

BF: I don't know because music is the only way I have of expressing myself. That's how I communicate what I need to communicate. I need to have people listening and it's nice to sit around the house and play my guitar, but when you're playing for people, that's what I love. I still don't know that there is anything describable in what I'm trying to say. I feel lucky to be able to play music in front of people, but it can seem so selfish. I'm doing it for myself but I need people there too. It doesn't make any sense if the people are not listening or getting something out of it, but I also know that you cannot try to figure out what people want to hear. All I can do is what I want to do. I just put it out there and hope that they are willing to listen. I think musicians get into trouble when they try to figure out what someone else is going to like, which can turn into a disaster.

AAJ: What do you envision for the future of jazz and for you personally?

BF: I can get kind of bummed out with everything getting computerized and compartmentalized. Everything's getting squeezed out and I can get discouraged but then I'm actually pretty optimistic. There is always somebody doing something interesting and this kind of music has always been a little bit underground. You have to look around for it a little bit, but I think that's just part of the deal. You start to think it's not there and can get discouraged but then if you look, there is someone in some basement figuring something out, trying to do something. I think the future is going to be fine.

AAJ: Last thoughts?

BF: Music is so cool and so powerful. I wish everybody could play music. Like my friend Danny Barnes says, "Music is good." It's a good thing. I just feel so lucky to get to do this all of the time.




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