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.

AAJ: You play some obscure chords on the recording. When you play a series of chords are you familiar with their harmonic dissonance? Or is it totally spontaneous?

BF: I'm always trying to find something new, but that's part of the process. Every time I play I'm trying to push it a little bit further. Sometimes I just completely jump off into outer space where I don't know where I'm going, and then I find things. I remember reading something that Herbie Hancock said about making a mistake. He said, if you make a mistake, then you hear what that sounds like. And sometimes that will sound good and sometimes it will sound bad, but it's the only way you're going to get to that point of jumping off the cliff. In that way you can find something and do it again if you like it.

AAJ: With so many bent notes and bent chords and dissonances and going without a rehearsal before taping the session, was there ever a moment when you and Ron played something that, together, sounded like shit and forced you to call for another take?

BF: The deal with that is the recovery. You know, you play something that you wish you hadn't played, but then it's what you do next to make it sound right somehow. I think that's constantly going on. But this session definitely was not one of those situations. A lot of it was just one or two takes. There was no fixing things later in the mix or repairing wrong notes. It's just one of those things—you sort of live with whatever it is.

AAJ: As the leader of the session, did you give instructions to Ron or Paul, as far as what to play?

BF: No, that wasn't it at all, especially with those guys, or with anybody. I don't really like talking about stuff anyway with the people I play with. If I need to talk too much, I don't even want to bother.

AAJ: "Worse for Worse sounds almost like a film noir soundtrack, with Ron's pedal bass and Paul's sizzle cymbal playing time, like someone's standing under a streetlight lighting a cigarette or something.

BF: That's a tune I wrote for a visual presentation produced by Seattle artist/cartoonist Jim Woodring. The music was inspired by his original artwork—definitely dark and ominous.

AAJ: "Raise Four is a playful, medium-tempo, bouncy blues.

BF: That's a Monk tune. I don't why that tune slipped by me for so many years. I thought I had heard all of his tunes, but just a few years ago I discovered it. It's very simple. There are very few notes in the whole tune—a total genius tune. I don't why I hadn't found it before, but I've been playing that a lot lately.

Bill FrisellAAJ: But again, like you were saying, it's a real simple tune. Listening to it, like a lot of the cuts on the recording, one gets a sense that the grownup musicians are emptying their old toy chest and playing like children again. Then there's "Pretty Polly.

BF: That's a traditional ballad about a guy who takes his girlfriend down to the river and stabs her, or some horrible thing, but these days a lot of bluegrass bands play it. The tunes of Ron's and Paul's or something like "You Are My Sunshine ...a lot of those tunes are deep in my blood and have been with me for my whole life. But then something like "Pretty Polly —in the last ten years I've been focusing more on those kinds of tunes. And what's interesting about that tune is that I've never heard Ron play bluegrass. He was just responding to the melody, but it's about as far from any kind of bluegrass as you could get.

AAJ: Let me ask you about "Monroe.

BF: It's one of my tunes. People wonder if I'm talking about Marilyn Monroe, but, again, it's bluegrass music, and I originally wrote the tune for Bill Monroe. The first time I played the tune, about ten years ago, was with a mandolin, but I wanted to play that with Ron for a long time. I could hear him playing that.

AAJ: "Introduction is really laid back.

BF: That's one of Paul's songs. He writes these amazing ballad melodies, and I recorded it on one of the first albums I did with Paul around 20 years ago. He really writes great melodies.

AAJ: "Misterioso is another Monk tune.

BF: That's another song that I've been playing a long time. Because we didn't have any rehearsal I was looking for stuff that everybody knew so we could hit right on it.

AAJ: The last cut is "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. You play it like a spiritual.

BF: There's a definite country song, by Hank Williams, with a little bit of extra stuff in there. Some of the chords have been messed with, but then it goes into a straight ahead, simple tune. I keep seeing these similarities, lines that cross over. I'm always bothered by labels proclaiming this is jazz, this is blues, this is country, this is rock. All those boundaries, I don't think they really exist. "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry is a classic—basic, strong melody with simple chords. It could have been played on Miles' Kind of Blue record. What happens with it just depends on who's playing it.

AAJ: How many times have you listened to the new recording?

BF: I guess when I heard it the most was when we mixed it. That's the last time I heard it really. I don't listen any more after that. [laughs]

AAJ: Would you say it's one of your better recordings?

BF: Oh boy, I don't know about better or worse. For me it was about the chance to play with Paul and Ron and have them together. That was the big thing for me. I've been playing with Paul for 25 years, and Ron, I first got the chance to play with him around ten years ago. They're both still kind of these big hero characters for me. I don't know when I started thinking about wanting to get them together. They played together a little bit in the '60s, but they hadn't played together for a really long time. So it was a big dream come true just to get them together in the same room. The whole vibe of the thing was so great. We had a lot of fun doing it. I hope some of that comes across. Not just the fact that I was petrified to be doing this in a day and a half with these guys. It's pretty intense to not know what's really going to happen, with so little time to do it.

AAJ: Well that kind of brings me to my next question. The music you play is pretty mellow. Are you a mellow guy?

BF: [laughs] Well people say that when they see me but I don't think they know what's going on under the surface. Half the time I'm totally flipping out.

AAJ: Really? What stresses you out?

BF: Just being in this world right now. It's like, whoa, what's happening, you know. I can't even turn on the TV without going insane. I'm probably stressed out by the same things that affect everybody else. [laughs]

AAJ: What about the stress of recording in a day and a half, like you did, and not knowing what's going to happen. Is that stressful?

BF: It's a different kind. Maybe I worry about it more beforehand. Although this was a weird one because I didn't even have time to worry about it. I was touring and a lot of stuff was going on, and I knew that we weren't going to rehearse. So I figured I've been playing music my whole life and there's nothing I can really do at the last minute to prepare.

AAJ: Has anyone ever said to you, "Hey Bill, you're too stressed out. You need to relax!

BF: [laughs] I do hear it from my wife. She tells me that every day.

AAJ: Well a lot of people have been stressing out over the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth. Have you seen it?

BF: Oh I still haven't seen it. I guess I've been not really wanting to see it, but I've been meaning to see it. I'm sort of scared to see it. There's just so much stuff going on in the world now. I feel so helpless sometimes.

AAJ: Let's talk about our home, Seattle. How long have you been living in Seattle?

BF: Since '89. But during that time I've been traveling so much that the actual time that I've been here seems a lot less.

AAJ: Do you have any kids?

BF: I have a daughter, Monica, who's now living in New York. She's going to school, studying photography. We came here when she was three; and then last year she moved to New York. So that's kind of cool for me. It seems like I'm seeing her more since she's in New York. The last couple of years when she was in high school here in Seattle and I never saw her.

AAJ: What do you like about Seattle in general, and its music, specifically?

BF: When I came here I wasn't looking for a scene to get into. I had been living in New York for 10 years before I came here and I was sort of looking for an atmosphere where I could concentrate better and write my own music, a more meditative place. Something just feels good to me about being here. I'm not sure what would happen if I was here every day of the year. I don't know how that would work, but somehow it works when I'm traveling so much and then to come back here it always feels so good. But I remember the very first time I came to Seattle, I guess it was in 1988, and I got off the airplane, and the smell of the air just hit me. Man, I thought, what is that smell? It was oxygen. [laughs] I'd been on the east coast for so long.

AAJ: And in your neighborhood right off of Puget Sound you get some of that salty sea air.

BF: Yeah, there's fog that comes through.

AAJ: Well, I thought we could rap it up with a nutty little series of this-or-that questions. Ready?

BF: Uh oh.

AAJ: Given the choice, what would you rather do: Watch the sunset behind the Olympic Mountains, or hail a cab during in New York during rush hour?

BF: The sunset. I just did that the other night; it was unbelievable. About three nights ago I walked over to the edge of that park in Ballard that's on a cliff above the beach. It was awesome.

AAJ: And there's the Ballard Locks.

BF: Yeah, I go there a lot.

AAJ: Would you rather watch the boats go through the Ballard Locks, or try to park your rental car in Paris?

BF: [laughs] So far Seattle's sounding pretty good.

AAJ: Who would you rather listen to: Robert Johnson or Robert Plant?

BF: Well we still have Robert Plant, but I've thought a lot about what it would sound like to actually be in the same room with Robert Johnson. That would be one of those...I can't even imagine what that would sound like. Nothing against Robert Plant, but I'd have to go with Robert Johnson because I don't know when I'm ever going to get to hear him.

AAJ: Who would you rather listen to: Keith Richards or Keith Jarrett?

BF: Um...I don't know. They're both cool to me. I kind of need both those guys. I'd like to hear them playing together.

AAJ: Okay, last one: Kenny G or Kitaro?

BF: [laughs] Oh... How would they sound together? That's a hard choice. They'd have to be playing together. Everybody, let's get it all together.

Bill FrisellAAJ: I just have one last question, and it's about the critics like me who call and interview you. Is that something that annoys you, having people constantly asking you questions?

BF: It's weird. Sometimes I feel like I've woken up in the middle of this dream and I can't figure out why...how did I get to this. I mean, I don't know anything. How come people are asking me? With music, it's such a long, ongoing...deep down inside I feel the same way now as I did when I first started playing. I don't feel like I'm any kind of expert. Sometimes it's confusing how all this attention gets paid to me. It's an honor to have people think there's something going on worth talking about. You could play the same piece of music for everybody on the planet and they'd all hear something different in it. I'm not really into the idea of one thing is better...there's all this different stuff, you know. I'm flattered that I get all this attention, but I don't quite understand how it all happened. It's also hard to talk about, you know, music is like—I can't really explain anything that I'm doing. The music is so much stronger. Somebody said that music picks up where words leave off, and that totally makes sense to me.

Selected Discography

Bill Frisell, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006)
Jack DeJohnette/Bill Frisell, The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers (Golden Beams, 2006)
Bill Frisell, East/West (Nonesuch, 2005)
Bill Frisell, Richter 858 (Songlines, 2005)
Cuong Vu, It's Mostly Residual (ArtistShare, 2005)
Paul Motion/Joe Lovano/Bill Frisell, I Have the Room Above Her (ECM, 2005)
Jenny Scheinman, Twelve Songs (Cryptogramophone, 2005)
Bill Frisell, Unspeakable (Nonesuch, 2004)
Petra Haden/Bill Frisell, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell (Songlines, 2003)
Kelly Joe Phelps, Slingshot Professionals (Rykodisc, 2003)
Ron Miles/Bill Frisell, Heaven Sterling Circle, 2002)
Robin Holcomb, Big Time (Nonesuch, 2002)
Bill Frisell, Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001)
Laurie Anderson, Life on a String (Atlantic, 2001)
Bill Frisell, Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000)
Bill Frisell, Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999)
Bill Frisell, The Sweetest Punch: The Songs of Costello and Bacharach (Polygram, 1999)
David Sylvian, Dead Bees on a Cake (Virgin, 1999)
Fred Hersch/Bill Frisell, Songs We Know (Nonesuch, 1998)
Bill Frisell, Nashville (Nonesuch, 1997)
Joey Baron, Down Home (Intuition, 1997)
Bill Frisell, Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996)
Kenny Wheeler, Angel Song (ECM, 1996)
Elvis Costello/Bill Frisell, Deep Dead Blue (Warner Bros., 1995)
Jim Hall, Dialogues (Telarc, 1995)
Bill Frisell, This Land (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994)
Naked City, Heretic, Jeux des Dames Cruelles (Avant, 1994)
Ginger Baker, Going Back Home Atlantic, 1994)
Bill Frisell, Have a Little Faith (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993)
Jerry Granelli, A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing (Evidence, 1992)
Don Byron, Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992)
Bill Frisell, Where in the World? (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1991)
Naked City, Grand Guignol (Avant, 1991)
Gavin Bryars, After the Requiem (ECM, 1991)
Paul Motian, Bill Evans (JMT, 1990)
Bill Frisell, Lookout for Hope (ECM, 1988)
Paul Motian, Monk in Motian JMT, 1988)
Power Tools, Strange Meeting Antilles, 1987)
Paul Bley, Fragments (ECM, 1986)
Bill Frisell, Rambler (ECM, 1985)
Lyle Mays, Lyle Mays (Warner Bros., 1985)
John Zorn, Cobra (Hat Hut, 1985)
Marc Johnson, Bass Desires (ECM, 1985)
Bill Frisell, In Line (ECM, 1983)

Jan Garbarek Group, Wayfarer (ECM, 1983)
Bob Moses, When Elephants Dream of Music (Gramavision, 1982)
Eberhard Weber, Later That Evening (ECM, 1982)
Paul Motian, Psalm (ECM, 1982)
Jan Garbarek Group, Paths, Prints (ECM, 1982)
Arild Anderson, Molde Concert (ECM, 1982)
Eberhard Weber, Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979)

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Courtesy of AAJ Visual Arts Gallery
Center Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández
Bottom Photo: Joe Smith

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