Bill Frisell’s guitar finds melodies to sing in every corner of the musical world
By Scott Nygaard
He may be the most important jazz guitarist of the last quarter of the 20th century, but a listen to most of Bill Frisell’s recordings over the last few years might leave an uninitiated listener thinking, “This is jazz ?” Ever since the release of the acclaimed Nashville in 1996 (Downbeat’s Album of the Year), Frisell has primarily been playing and composing a kind of heartland instrumental music that explores the places where jazz intersects with other American roots music, including blues, bluegrass, and old-time country music. As if to answer those who wonder whether his music can still be called jazz, last fall  Frisell released a trio recording with two modern jazz legends, drummer Elvin Jones, one of the most powerful rhythmatists ever to smack a skin and who is best known for his membership in the thundering early-’60s John Coltrane Quartet, and bassist Dave Holland, who has been one of the premier acoustic bassists on the scene since his tenure with Miles Davis in the late-’60s.
Frisell, however, as has become his custom, continues to frustrate those who would put his music in a box. Instead of the burning jazz trio session with large dollops of Frisell’s trademark searing, ambient electric guitar, which might have been expected from such a line-up, Frisell opted instead to enlist Holland and Jones in expanding the borders of his melodic, roots-oriented music, creating nonetheless, a recording that virtually defines where jazz guitar is at the beginning of the new millenium. Choosing to record a batch of originals he’s previously recorded, as if simply to see what Jones and Holland might do with them, along with a pair of standards from two great American songwriters, Henry Mancini and Stephen Foster, Frisell’s guitar rocks, whispers, slithers, moans, chortles, and sings, accompanied by cohorts who eagerly follow him like shadows from twin suns, no matter what odd path he wanders down.
Since the dissolution of his long-time band with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron, Frisell has taken the opportunity to record, perform, and jam with musicians of every conceivable stripe. A performance at the SFJazz Festival last November with slide guitar master Greg Leisz and new-bossa singer Vinicius Cantuária saw Frisell ranging over a bewildering array of music. The bluesy original “Big Shoe” slipped easily into a repetitive minor-key line by Malian guitarist Boubacar Traoré (who had been scheduled to play with Frisell that night), followed by a foray into the country with “Your Cheating Heart” and “John Hardy,” a side-trip to Hawaii with the slack-keyish original “Good Dog, Happy Man,” and a return to Frisell’s New York jazz roots with the melodic/dissonant original “Strange Meeting,” which took on a Brazilian flavor courtesy of Cantuária’s fingerstyle comping. After all that, the encore of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” wasn’t a bit surprising. If one wonders about Frisell’s intent in combining such disparate music, the impish smile that emanated from his face as he interacted with Leisz and Cantuária explained it all: he simply loves all the music he has learned and is learning to play. Each melody seems like a freshly unwrapped gift to him.
Frisell’s next recorded project is Bill Frisell and the Willies, a band with Bad Livers banjoist/guitarist Danny Barnes and bassist Keith Lowe that takes old-time country music as its purview. Once again, Frisell’s approach is not what one might have expected. Considering Frisell’s newfound love of the acoustic guitar and the CD’s repertoire–“Cluck Old Hen,” “John Hardy,” “Blackberry Blossom,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and other stalwarts of the old-time and bluegrass canon (along with a brace of like-minded originals)–one might have expected a slightly wacky acoustic picking session. Instead, Frisell primarily uses his electric guitar to sing the prosaic melodies while Barnes and Lowe provide the appropriate funky backwoods groove on banjo and bass.
And as if he’s now content for the moment with his take on jazz and old-time music, Frisell has created a new band, the Intercontinental Quartet—with Cantuária, Greek bouzouki player Christos Govetas, and Malian percussionist Sidiki Camara—about which it’s almost impossible to make any predictions.
The morning after Frisell’s performance at the 2002 SFJazz Festival, I met with him over breakfast at his hotel, and in his shy, unassuming way (“Is it OK if I eat?”) talked about his new record and about the paths his music has taken since his days as a surf and R&B guitarist in Denver, Colorado.
Your new record with Elvin Jones and David Holland finds you returning to a jazz format after a number of roots-oriented records.
Frisell Yeah, I’m curious how people are going to perceive it. There’s probably some expectation for it to be that, because you see those guys on there. But for me it was just another record. I mean, it wasn’t just another record, but as far as me taking one step at a time doing the next thing, it felt like the next thing. I didn’t feel like I stepped way out of the path of where I’d been going. But we literally had just a few hours to do it, so I used a lot of older tunes. I didn’t write any new music for it. Since we had so little time, I wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with the music.
How did it come about?
Frisell It was this friend of mine Michael Shrieve’s idea. He’s a drummer. He was in Santana and all that, you know. He’s known Elvin since he was a young kid. He snuck in to see John Coltrane’s band when he was too young to get into a club. He climbed into some bathroom window or vent or something and dropped down into the bathroom, and the whole band—Coltrane and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner—were standing there getting ready to play, and they invited him in. That’s when he met Elvin, and he’s stayed close to him all this time. Michael got it in his head that I should play with Elvin. And I said, “Yeah, right. Like that’s ever going to happen.” I’d met Elvin once—I’d shook his hand 20 years ago or something—but never dreamed I’d be able to play with him.
How did it become a trio record with Dave Holland?
Frisell Dave was the link, because I had done a couple things with him, and we were talking about playing some more, maybe a duo record. I knew that Dave had played with Elvin so I asked him to do it—just to have a link with Elvin. Even though I haven’t played with Dave that much, at least he had a relationship with Elvin.
You just had a few hours to record?
Frisell Yeah, there were two days to record, and Elvin got the schedule mixed up, so he thought the second day was the first day. The first day I’m setting up, and I’m so nervous, because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re wondering, “Where is he?” We call him, and he says “I thought it was tomorrow.” So he finally gets there, we played a little bit, and then the next day we played a little bit more. But it was really just this little moment—just this little jam session.
After we did it, I went back and did some overdubs—put on these harmony parts and stuff. That’s where I worry about people’s expectations. I shouldn’t, but if someone is expecting a real straight-ahead jazz record, they might think that’s sacrilegious or something. But the core is three people playing live. That’s the most important thing, and then I just orchestrated it a little bit.
Like everybody, I suppose, I expected it to be this burning jazz trio session. But you play a lot of acoustic guitar and also incorporate all the other “non-jazz” stuff you’ve been doing.
Frisell Well, I didn’t want to go in and just play something that everyone wants to play with Elvin: “My Favorite Things” or some song like that. It was incredible the way he responded to the material. When we played “Hard Times,” he got so excited and said it reminded him of the music he listened to as a kid. He played with Pete Seeger and he loves Big Bill Broonzy, so he’s into all this blues stuff. There’s even a record he made in the late ’60s where he plays acoustic guitar on one song—“Elvin’s Guitar Blues.”
Did you do some of the live trio tracks with acoustic guitar? “Moon River” is just one guitar. What did you play on that?
Frisell That’s one of Steve Andersen’s archtops—an L-5 kind of guitar. “Hard Times” was recorded on a Gibson J-45 that Lee Townsend [Frisell’s producer] has. I just love that guitar. “Coffaro’s Tune” was recorded with that J-45. And I used this Steve Klein guitar—one of his really big ones—on “20 Years,” but that was more of an overdub.
The acoustic guitar has been a part of all your records since the beginning, but for a long time it seems like you mostly used it as a different color in the arrangement. Or like the version of “Rag” on Is That You?, where it’s kind of a diversion from the rest of the record.
Frisell Yeah, it used to be more like I would just add one little overdub with the acoustic. But for as long as I’ve had an acoustic guitar, I’ve always played it at home. If I’m just sitting around playing at home, I don’t pick up my electric guitar. But the electric is still really my voice, mainly. The acoustic is still like another instrument for me. I’m trying to get the acoustic happening, but . . . Maybe I just need to commit to it. Like I can’t imagine doing a whole gig by myself with just the acoustic and nothing else. I’m not that comfortable playing alone anyway, but with the electric guitar I can get through it somehow, with all the junk—the effects and stuff. But just to play completely naked, with the acoustic, that’s something I hope someday I could do.
You’ve been playing with a lot of different people lately, but for a while you primarily played in a trio with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. Do you like having the feeling of every gig being a little different now?
Frisell With Kermit and Joey, that was really my first band. And that went on for a long time. They were so integrated into the music, I didn’t know that my music would function without them. I’ve known Kermit since before I ever wrote a tune, and they were the ones that encouraged me and gave me the confidence to do it. So when that came to an end, it was kind of terrifying. But then it was also liberating to try something with other people. Nashville was one of the first things where I went into this unknown situation with my own music and with people that I didn’t really know and didn’t know how they would respond to it or play it. And it was cool. And that gave me another shot of confidence to try it with different people. But then at the same time, I do want to have a band that really knows my stuff inside out. It’s sort of a safety net, and then I can go out from there and try stuff with other people.
I have a trio with [bassist] Tony Scher and [drummer] Kenny Wollesen that is the first time I’ve had that since the band with Joey and Kermit. They just know everything I’ve ever done, and we don’t have to figure out anything at all. We just start playing and I can do whatever I want. Also, I have this quartet with Kenny and Greg Leisz and David Pilch, a bass player from L.A., and that’s become that sort of thing too, but it’s a little bit different than the trio. In that trio, we can really play anything, any kind of old standard tune. Tony Scher also plays slide guitar—he has this really cheap little Stella. We’ll play electric guitar, bass, and drums, and then we’ll do this little miniature acoustic trio thing—almost totally acoustic. We played at the Village Vanguard a couple weeks ago and in that club, you don’t even need a mic. We’ve been doing a little bit with just one mic for all of us. But it’s so cool to play with not even a mic at all.
Your musical relationship with Greg Leisz is quite unique. How did you meet him?
Frisell After Nashville came out I did a few gigs with Jerry Douglas and Viktor Krauss, and Greg came to one. I didn’t know anything about him, and I didn’t realize how aware of him I was. But after the concert we talked a bit, and I really liked him. He’s just the nicest guy in the world. And then I started noticing that he was on what seemed like every record I had bought in the last year. There’s so much stuff that he’s played on. Then I asked him to play on Good Dog, Happy Man. That was the first time we’d ever played together. Many times I can tell how the music is going to go more by talking to somebody than just about anything. What Greg is as a person makes what he plays so open and interactive and supportive all at the same time.
The way you two play together is different than the way you play with almost anyone else. There’s not as much a delineation between soloist and accompanist. The two of you can just play and somehow it all works.
Frisell Yeah, I love that. And I don’t think we’ve ever once said, “You solo here and I’ll solo there.” It just makes a sound. Sometimes one of us is more in the foreground or whatever, but . . .
So that just kind of happened?
Frisell Yeah. I don’t know if it’s because he’s played with so many singers. That’s his thing—to back up singers. But he does it in this unconventional way. He doesn’t lay down some real strict rhythm thing. He has a way of supporting a singer and orchestrating what they do. It’s unpredictable, but he’s always listening to the whole thing. And when I play in the jazz world, playing instrumental music, I’m trying to make my guitar be the singer. A lot of the tunes I play, I’m trying to almost mimic a singer. Like when I play a John Hiatt song, I’ll hear John Hiatt singing the song and try to play what his voice was doing. So when I play with Greg, we are both able to be really free. We automatically have these roles in place. But it’s not like I’m the singer and he’s the orchestrator. It definitely goes back and forth and crosses over.
Sometimes he becomes the singer, because he’s playing the melody.
Frisell Yes, well I like to play with singers, too. I just like that it doesn’t have to be worked out.
That brings up one thing about your playing that is different, to my ears, than most jazz musicians: your adherence to the melody of a song. The standard jazz thing being that you start by playing the melody and then you get rid of the melody and improvise on the chord progression, whereas when you improvise you always hear the melody.
Frisell That’s really important for me. The worst-case scenario is where you play the melody of a song and then it’s just, “OK, that’s out of the way, now I can play all this stuff I’ve been practicing.” That doesn’t interest me. Where things really happen for me is where you try to milk as much out of whatever the song is. Just trying to work with it and stay with it or turn it inside out or whatever. That’s also where you find your own voice rather than practicing figured-out things that you can plug into any situation. But if you really use the melody of the song, and you’re true to what the song is, that gives you the framework to show your individuality.
It seems odd that playing the melody allows you to make more of a personal statement than running off a bunch of chords and scales and licks. That seems more like an older approach to jazz than a post–Charlie Parker thing. Were you inspired by anyone to play that way?
Frisell What I still think of as the modern guys, like Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis, whenever they would play they’d constantly remind you of where the melody is. They’d definitely go away from it, but it’s somehow always back there. Even somebody like Coltrane, who you think just blew everything apart and played so much stuff, I still hear it in him, too, even if it’s 10,000 notes.
You studied with Jim Hall. Did he influence you that way?
Frisell Oh boy, in a lot of ways. He told me a lot of things that were big important things. But talking about melody, he would try to get me to just stay with one phrase—to play an idea—some little phrase, just a couple of notes—and try to stick with that for awhile and see what I could make out of that, instead of just running off all over the place. It’s trying to develop a theme off of what you improvise, which ties into the melody, too. You’re using less ideas, but trying to get more out of them. Everybody can learn what scale fits with what chord. Not that that’s easy. You gotta learn all that stuff, but if you just start running it off, it doesn’t mean anything.
And he talked a lot about listening to other instruments besides the guitar. He would talk about Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins. I don’t know if I got that totally from him, but that’s been a big part of my music—not thinking about the guitar so much, but listening to any kind of music and trying to use the guitar as a little orchestra to try to mimic all the sounds that I hear. With jazz, it was about listening to horn players or piano players and trying to do that on the guitar, things that you never heard other guitar players do. But then I began trying that with any kind of music—listening to an orchestra maybe and trying to make that sound on the guitar.
In addition to that, you and Jim also take advantage of the things that are unique to the guitar. Like a simple open-string sound.
Frisell This goes back to playing the acoustic guitar. There was this long time where I didn’t listen to any kind of guitar stuff—or not much. But in the last few years I’ve definitely gone back and gotten more into just the guitar itself. When I went to Nashville, that kind of opened the floodgates. I thought, “Man, I better check out what’s going on.” It led me to bluegrass stuff, but I’m really attracted to even older old-timey kinds of stuff . . . and blues. Blind Willie Johnson and Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb.
A lot of musicians have combined blues and jazz and rock into various kinds of music, but very few have added old-time country music to that, as you have.
Frisell I just love when you can find these connections between things. I don’t like the way things are categorized. People think that this has to be that. Country is that and blues is this and rock and jazz is that, but if you look at any kind of music and go back far enough, there’s usually some point where it’s the same as the thing it’s supposed to be the opposite of. For me, country music and blues is the same. And that whole racial thing really bothers me, the way it’s black and white. Country is white and blues is black. I get excited when I hear like a really old Bill Monroe record and there’s some momentary thing in there where it sounds exactly like a Duke Ellington record from the same time. Or like when I heard Dock Boggs and I didn’t know whether he was black or white. I just really like it when you can’t put your finger on it, and I guess I’m trying to get some of that mystery into my own stuff. Although it’s still in this obvious stage where I’m trying to figure it out. I can’t really play those old-time tunes for real. I’m just trying to learn them. I’ve just recently been playing them on gigs, trying to figure out my own way with them somehow.
I like the version of “John Hardy” on Bill Frisell and the Willies with Danny Barnes, where you slowed it way down and it became hymn-like and elegiac.
Frisell Some of those old tunes that bluegrass guys play have become faster and faster and faster, and I just can’t play that fast. Danny can, and I struggle along and try. But it’s cool to take some of those tunes and say, “I wonder what it’d sound like if I play it ten times slower.” Take “Blackberry Blossom” on that record. That’s a tune I’ve heard people play super fast. I want to learn about the music, but in my inability to get there, sometimes I just play it real slow to see what’s in there.
Does it feel odd to be playing “Your Cheating Heart” or “John Hardy” at the San Francisco Jazz Festival?
Frisell A couple weeks ago, we played at the Village Vanguard, which is like the ultimate jazz club. The first day we were there, we set up and started playing “Good Night, Irene,” and Lorraine [Gordon], the owner of the club, comes running out with tears in her eyes saying, “Oh man. ‘Good Night Irene.’ I remember when Leadbelly was here.” She loves Leadbelly and he used to play that song in there. So I know you’re not supposed to do that in the Village Vanguard, but we played a bunch of those tunes and it made total sense.
I’d like to talk about your composing a bit. Do you have any kind of writing schedule or discipline?
Frisell Sometimes I can do a little bit when I’m away from home, but it’s better when I’m home and can get some kind of momentum and do a little bit every day. Then one thing starts to lead into another. Sometimes I’ll write almost stream-of-consciousness melodies down on paper. Like if you’re walking down the street, just whistling, not thinking about it. Sometimes I’ll just let it go off, however it goes, or sometimes I’ll try to write like a four-bar, real concise, question-and-answer melody or something. But just on paper. And then I’ll take my guitar and mess with it and see what it sounds like.
Some of your tunes have simple repeating chord patterns with these long melodies that keep unfolding. Is that where those tunes come from?
Frisell No, those are probably written on the guitar. There’ll be some kind of little bit that I can keep going, sometimes it’s just four chords over and over again, and having the underlying pattern generates the melody somehow.
One of your trademark composing things is to end a phrase with a big root note or triad, with no lead-in. It seems kind of bizarre to have a signature thing be so simple.
Frisell That’s totally true. I never thought about that [laughs]. It’s weird to become aware of your own stuff. Now I’ll be thinking, “Not that again.” When I’m writing I’m trying to have my ear pull me one step at a time further and further away from the obvious, and then maybe I want to be reminded of where I started, or something? I don’t know.
In your writing, you use a lot of triads with just one dissonant note.
Frisell I went to Berklee for arranging, and I took these Duke Ellington classes with Herb Pomeroy. One thing he talked about was taking a triad and sticking in one note a half-step away from any note—like if you have a D-major triad and stick an F in there—just to see what it sounds like. Vinicius did that when he was playing “Strange Meeting” last night; he was playing a C-minor chord and then he played a major third—the open E string. And I thought, “Oh wow, he’s playing it wrong.” But I looked and I saw he was totally committed to it, and I thought, “Wow that sounds good—that sounds cool.”