Bill Frisell: Why So Stressed Out?

Jason West By

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Bill FrisellBill Frisell is well suited to Seattle's leisurely pace. The Grammy-winning guitarist and composer moved here in 1989 and immediately took to the area. "I had been living in New York for ten years before I came here, Frisell said when I spoke to him last month. "I was sort of looking for an atmosphere where I could concentrate better and write my own music, a more meditative place.

Unlike the high-strung, overcrowded populace of New York City, Seattle residents drive a little slower and breathe a little deeper. Seattleites have more time to relax and reflect. We pause. We ponder. And we attract musicians. "Something just feels good to me about being here, Frisell says in his characteristically laid back style. Born in Baltimore and raised in Denver, Bill and his wife now reside in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.

Violinist Eyvind Kang, drummer Matt Chamberlain, banjo/guitarist Danny Barnes, trombonist Steve Moore and pianist/composer Wayne Horvitz are among Frisell's numerous Seattle-based collaborators—a musical support group that makes for great local listening. In fact, Frisell and Horvitz are scheduled to perform this fall as part of Seattle's 2006 Earshot Jazz Festival.

Home is sweet, but the road beckons. In early September Frisell will be in Germany and Switzerland playing with bassist Tony Sherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen before returning to the States for two weeks at the Village Vanguard with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Paul Motian. A dozen dates out west with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Jerome Harris are on the October calendar. Then, in November, Frisell reunites with his Unspeakable Orchestra (a group that includes Kang, Scherr, Wollesen, cellist Hank Roberts and violinist Jenny Scheinman, with special guests trumpeter Ron Miles and saxophonist Greg Tardy) for a series of shows back east. Seattle, however, remains the center of Bill's universe.

It's a universe with more than enough space to accommodate fellow musical galaxians, bassist Ron Carter and Paul Motian. In fact, Frisell and Motian go way back. They toured Europe as a duo in 1981 and soon afterwards recorded Motian's Psalm (ECM, 1982). Frisell and Carter's ten-year history is relatively recent by comparison. And while Motian and Carter played together briefly in the '60s, their paths didn't cross again until last February, when Frisell called and asked them to record. "It was a big dream come true just to get Ron and Paul together in the same room, Frisell remembers. "The whole vibe of the thing was so great. We had a lot of fun.

Titled simply, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006), this ten-track disc blurs the lines that divide music into various styles and genres. "I'm always bothered by labels proclaiming this is jazz, this is blues, this is country, this is rock, says Frisell. "All those boundaries, I don't think they really exist.

His version of "You Are My Sunshine, for example, examines that familiar melody, slows it down, alters it, and injects into its simple, happy, sing-song nature something deeper, darker and strangely captivating.

"Pretty Polly is traditional ballad popular with bluegrass bands, but don't tell Ron Carter. "I've never heard Ron play bluegrass, says Frisell. "He was just responding to the melody, but [this tune] is about as far from any kind of bluegrass as you could get.

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry is a Hank Williams country classic, yet Bill treats it like a spiritual, playing it like a prayer. According to Frisell, the tune could have been played on Miles' Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959). "What happens with it, he says, "just depends on who's playing it.

What you won't hear on Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian is flash, gimmicks, or any trace of ego. To these guys music is much bigger than that. It's this interview stuff that's not worth the bother.

All About Jazz: The first song on your new CD is called "Eighty-One. It seems ironic to have experienced musicians like yourself and Ron and Paul playing in such a simple style, kind of like returning to the basics.

Bill Frisell: Uh, ironic? I'm not sure...

AAJ: Ironic in the sense that you're so advanced and have been playing music for many years, yet you approach this song on a very basic, simple level.

BF: Well, for me, that song is a pretty important part of my history. Hearing Miles Davis play it...Ron wrote that song for Miles, and it's been in my blood the whole time I've been trying to play music. I don't know the whole thing about complex and simple. I don't know about all that.

AAJ: "You Are My Sunshine is a popular folk melody. You begin with a very dissonant opening chordal statement of the melody, which sets up a wide playing field for what's to come.

BF: That's another one of those songs that has sort of been around forever, from when I was a little kid. And, more recently, I've enjoyed taking a song like that, that you've heard so many times, and try to...like you mentioned, the first statement, the melody is somehow in there, but I sort of abstracted it quite a bit. One thing I remember about that, that kind of blew my mind, was that I had written a reharmonization of the melody, and it's pretty far from the original chords. We had no rehearsal for the record, we just went in (Avatar Studios, NYC) and played, so I thought well, at least I've got to show Ron the first 16 bars, and he says, "No, no, no, just turn on the tape. Surprise me. So I played the first chord, and he responded to it. Ron's ears are ridiculous.


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