Bill Frisell: The Quiet Genius

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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.

Lloyd Peterson: 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.

LP: 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.

LP: 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?

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