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Clip: Bill Frisell

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  • Carl Zimring
    Artistic Inspiration Bill Frisell gets a real band out of Gerhard Richter-inspired music by Derk Richardson, special to SF
    Message 1 of 2 , Feb 3, 2005

      Artistic Inspiration
      Bill Frisell gets a real band out of Gerhard Richter-inspired music

      by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate

      Thursday, February 3, 2005

      Every few years, guitarist Bill Frisell foments a quiet revolution in jazz.
      In 1992, he took the concept of "new standards" to rarefied heights with
      his renditions of music by Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, John Phillip Sousa, Aaron
      Copland, Muddy Waters and others on Have a Little Faith. Five years later,
      he released his Nashville album with members of Alison Krauss' Union
      Station, Lyle Lovett's Large Band and others. In 2003, The
      Intercontinentals gave world-jazz fusion its biggest creative and popular
      jolt in the more than 30 years since the advent of Oregon. And last year,
      with the Hal Willner-produced Unspeakable, he put a postmodern spin on the
      soulful horns-and-strings of late '60s jazz and '70s soul.

      Now Frisell is touring as leader of a string quartet whose radicalism ranks
      with that of such mavericks as Kronos, Ethel and the Soldier String
      Quartet. His 858 Quartet -- which performs Thursday, Feb. 3 in Healdsburg,
      Friday, Feb. 4 in Berkeley and Saturday, Feb. 5 in San Francisco -- was
      originally formed to play music inspired by a suite of eight abstract
      paintings by Gerhard Richter; San Francisco journalist/poet/record producer
      David Breskin masterminded the project. The music, initially packaged with
      a limited-edition book, was recently released by Songlines as a hybrid CD
      with a CD-ROM program featuring the paintings.

      The 858 Quartet, which premiered the Richter-inspired music just over a
      year ago at SFMOMA, subsequently became one of Frisell's several working
      groups. "It all started with that Gerhard Richter project," says the
      Baltimore-born, Denver-raised and Seattle-based guitarist, whose halting
      and uncertain conversational manner reflects the thoughtful nature, though
      not the boldness, of his music. "We had one other gig after the SFMOMA
      Richter show, and we needed another set of music, so I scrambled around and
      just got some stuff together. Doing that really made me want to play with
      this group more -- not just have it be that Richter music, but have it be a
      real band."

      Cellist Hank Roberts, violist Eyvind Kang and violinist Jenny Scheinman had
      all played extensively with Frisell-Roberts in the late-'80s quartet that
      featured bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron; Kang was part of
      the mid-'90s quartet with trumpeter Ron Miles and trombonist Curtis
      Fowlkes; and Scheinman had been in the Intercontinentals. "I did my last
      album [Unspeakable] right at the end of when that was all coming together,
      so I wrote these string parts for that and got them to play on it," Frisell
      said by phone two weeks ago, taking a short break from working on new music
      for the quartet and for a Feb. 27 concert with the Seattle Chamber Players.
      "Then it started taking on a life of its own."

      Frisell's résumé is extraordinarily wide and deep. He's played with such
      jazz legends as drummers Elvin Jones and Paul Motian, bassist Dave Holland
      and saxophonist Lee Konitz; such contemporaries as John Zorn, Don Byron and
      Robin Holcomb; rock-associated drummers like Ginger Baker and Jim Keltner;
      bluegrass/country renegade Danny Barnes; and a host of international
      musicians, including Gabriela (Argentina), Vinicius Cantu·ria (Brazil),
      Christos Govetas (Greece/Macedonia) and Sidiki Camara (Mali), among many
      others. He's recorded music to accompany the films of Buster Keaton and the
      "Far Side" cartoons of Gary Larson. But string arranging had never been a
      big part of his work.

      "I haven't really had much experience, so it's pretty cool for me with
      these guys," Frisell explained. "Because I've played with all of them so
      much, I can just try anything and see how it works, and I don't have to
      worry about getting reprimanded. It's not like it's the Juilliard String
      Quartet or something. So it's a really incredible learning situation for
      me, because I can make horrible mistakes and not be too scared."

      Because of their individual experiences performing and recording with
      Frisell, each of the string players is intimately familiar with the
      guitarist's aesthetic. "That's like an incredible safety net," he said,
      "because basically I can just put anything in there or have them do
      anything, and I know they'll make something out of it some way."

      David Breskin recruited Frisell for the Richter project because he sensed
      parallels between the painter and the guitarist. "My attraction to Frisell
      wasn't because of his compositional style so much as his relationship with
      ... the electric guitar," Breskin said in a 2002 interview included in the
      booklet for the Richter 858 CD. "What Richter does with paint in these
      abstractions I think Frisell does by analog with music, with sound .... He
      [Frisell] shapes it. He torques it. He inverts it -- he reverses it in
      time, things come backwards. He modulates pitch. He changes tunings." And
      when Frisell's guitars and electronics are joined by violin, viola and
      cello, the possibilities for sound texture and color increase exponentially.

      Frisell recalls he first exposure to the paintings he was supposed to write
      music about. "Ohhh. It was ... it was weird. David Breskin had the
      paintings in his house. That was such a bizarre .... There's one room where
      all the paintings were, and I was just able to go in there by myself, and
      I've never done anything quite like that -- just stayed, I don't know, um,
      for, like, an hour, a couple hours, maybe? If I go to a museum, I don't
      ever sit there for an hour in one place. But I just stayed in there, and I
      had music paper, and I tried to ... I don't even know if any of what I
      finally wrote ... I'm not sure how much actually came out of that, but I
      tried to make some kind of gestures on the paper, even if it wasn't notes.

      "Sometimes I would just write real fast notes, or just sort of make more of
      a line or an architectural thing on the page that would try to get
      something that I was seeing in the painting," he added. "I don't remember
      how much longer it was after that that I actually wrote the music.

      "I was also inspired a lot by just learning a little about Richter, reading
      things about the process that he went through, the struggle that he goes
      through -- all that stuff is really similar to what happens when you're
      trying to make some music. He talked about struggling with knowing when the
      thing is finished. You're in the process of doing it, and you can take it
      past the point where it's finished and kind of ruin the whole thing, and I
      can definitely relate to that -- you go on too long, and then you lose the
      whole thing."

      Although he mentions guitarist Wes Montgomery's string-laden 1960s
      recordings as inspiration for some of the arrangements on Unspeakable,
      Frisell says he tries not to reference historical precedents when he's
      writing. "I guess I'm still doing it the way I would do anything else," he
      explained. "There's so much music that's kind of floating around back there
      -- everything that I've heard. But if I think too much about that, it's
      kind of intimidating. If I actually listen to a Bartok string quartet or a
      Beethoven string quartet or Charles Ives music or whatever, I think I'd be
      paralyzed. So I have to not think about that too much. I have to just go
      with whatever my understanding is of this thing right now."

      Two weeks before his Bay Area dates, Frisell was still working on the 858
      Quartet's live repertoire. "Right now, I'm trying to get some brand-new
      things together, and there's a lot of other music that I've written in the
      last few years that hasn't gotten played much, that people might not have
      heard at all, like some things for films. And then it could also be just
      some of my other tunes that I play with my other groups arranged for the
      strings, or old standard songs. I'm not sure what all there's going to be.
      There's a lot we can choose from, actually."

      If there's one thing you can say for certain about Bill Frisell, it's that
      he can be trusted to make interesting choices.

      Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet performs three nights in the Bay Area this week:
      Thursday, Feb. 3 at the Raven Theater, 151 North St., Healdsburg. Show time
      7 pm. Tickets $22. Friday, Feb. 4 at the First Congregation Church, 2345
      Channing Way, Berkeley. Show time 8 pm. Tickets $25. Saturday, Feb. 5 at
      the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St., SF. Show times 7:30 and 9:30 pm.
      Tickets $25. For more information, call (415) 454-5238.
    • Carl Z.
      No rules, no boundaries for Frisell Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
      Message 2 of 2 , Mar 15, 2007

        No rules, no boundaries for Frisell

        Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer

        Tuesday, March 13, 2007

        When guitarist Bill Frisell shuffles his iPod, the closing strains of
        an Ives symphony might fade into the stinging slide guitar of bluesman
        Blind Willie Johnson. That could flow into the sound of Bob Dylan's
        voice or Glenn Gould playing Bach, a Hank Williams ballad, a Sonny
        Rollins calypso, some African music or a Kentucky banjo picker.

        "Then maybe Bill Evans comes out of that, and it all makes total sense
        to me,'' says Frisell, an improviser and composer for whom stylistic
        boundaries don't exist. "It just keeps being interesting. I don't see
        any reason why music can't be like that.''

        For 25 years, and on as many albums, Frisell has been making original
        and deeply felt music that can't be pegged. It draws from many wells
        of American music -- jazz, country, blues and soul, Sousa marches,
        Copland symphonies, cowboy songs and Broadway shows. The word
        "eclectic" doesn't quite do him justice. Frisell has written scores to
        accompany the silent films of Buster Keaton and music inspired by the
        paintings of Gerhard Richter. His poetic, uncluttered playing merges
        the harmonic richness and grace of jazz master Jim Hall with the
        wired-up effects of Jimi Hendrix. He's worked with collaborators as
        diverse as Elvin Jones and Elvis Costello, Malian guitarist Boubacar
        Traore, English rock drummer Ginger Baker, the Frankfurt Ballet and
        Nashville dobro master Jerry Douglas, to name just a few.

        Frisell plays songs that speak to him -- sometimes for reasons he
        can't quite explain -- whether it's the traditional ballad
        "Shenandoah,'' the Streisand staple "People'' or Thelonious Monk's
        blues "Misterioso.'' He plays lyrical melodies and creates strange
        sonic worlds, using delay and distortion devices, that echo and hum
        with celestial harmonics, slashing chords and ringing long tones. All
        kinds of sounds could pour forth Friday night at San Francisco's Grace
        Cathedral, where Frisell plays a solo "sacred space'' concert as part
        of SFJazz's Spring Season. Even he doesn't know what he's going to do.

        "It might be a little dangerous, but the best thing for me to do is
        just rely on my instincts and go for it. I might think about some
        songs I want to play, but usually I just start playing, and a song
        will emerge and then lead into something else,'' says Frisell, on the
        phone from Seattle, where he settled in 1989 with his wife and
        then-young daughter. He's a gentle soul whose speech, with its
        thoughtful hesitations, rephrasings and quiet passion, suggests his
        circular playing.

        "I hope I can get in there in the afternoon and get a little sense of
        what the room sounds like,'' says Frisell, who turns 56 on Saturday.
        He's never been inside the high-vaulted Gothic cathedral but has been
        told about its seven-second echo, which presents a challenge and
        creative possibilities for musicians, especially for one with as keen
        a sense of space and sound as Frisell. "I hope it'll help me,'' he
        adds with a laugh. Frisell has often used delay and reverb effects in
        his music, and although he plans to bring the necessary devices to
        Grace along with electric and acoustic guitars, "I don't know if I'll
        need much of that in there.''

        These days, he says, "I'm really more and more attracted to just the
        natural sound of the guitar, even if it's electric, rather than having
        it go through a lot of processes. Years ago, I would keep adding
        little effects, usually because I was hearing something in my head
        that I couldn't get out.'' One pedal "would kind of mimic the sustain
        pedal on a piano. The distortion box was about coming closer to a
        saxophone or trumpet sound. The motivation came from what was in my
        imagination. You have those pedals for awhile, and then you get strong
        enough where you can take the pedal away and you can still kind of get
        to the sound without it.'' He pauses, rethinking. "I'm sure I'll have
        a bunch of boxes. But they have a tendency to sort of suck the tone
        out of the guitar.''

        Frisell, who was born in Baltimore (his father trained in biochemistry
        at Johns Hopkins) and grew up in Denver, first tried playing solo in
        the late '70s in a loft in Boston, where he'd studied at the Berklee
        College of Music. He was terrified, even though there were only a
        handful of people in the audience. He was supposed to play for an
        hour. After pouring out what he'd prepared, he looked at his watch and
        saw he'd only played for 10 minutes. He managed to come up with more
        stuff, but it was rough going. Every few years he'd make himself play
        solo, but it wasn't until 10 or 15 years ago that he felt OK about it.

        "I wouldn't say I'm comfortable with it, but I got to the point where
        I thought I could actually play some music,'' Frisell says with
        typical humility. "The hardest thing for me to learn was to play a
        musical idea and just let it go out into space, let it be there. When
        you play with other people you've always got this dialogue going, you
        respond to each other. My biggest problem when I played solo was that
        I was trying to run after my own ideas, to fill up the space around
        them. Once I began letting the ideas be there on their own, I could
        play better.''

        He did some extraordinary things on his 2000 solo CD "Ghost Town,''
        but he considers that "cheating'' because he overdubbed a lot of the
        stuff in the studio. But on several tunes he's "completely naked,
        playing by myself,'' as he puts it, and the music speaks with the
        pained beauty of a Miles Davis ballad. One of them is "My Man's Gone
        Now,'' the Gershwin piece from "Porgy and Bess'' that Davis recorded
        on his classic 1958 orchestral album and which Frisell included on his
        2005 live "East/West'' disc (the track was performed at New York's
        Village Vanguard with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scheer).
        He first heard the tune in high school, on the Evans-Jim Hall duo
        record "Intermodulation.''

        "That was the first time I heard Jim, and Bill, too, I guess, and I've
        been pretty much trying to play that song since then. I've been living
        with that song and loving it all that time,'' says Frisell, who
        studied with Hall in the early 1970s and was profoundly affected by
        the guitarist's ability to get inside the music and shape the sound
        and feeling of a group, rather than being a hot soloist playing on
        top. His other prime influence was Hendrix, "who split open the whole
        sound of the instrument.''

        A former jazz snob, Frisell eventually shook off that purist attitude
        to embrace all kinds of music that came into his life, consciously or
        otherwise. It might be a song he heard his mother sing, or a Stephen
        Foster tune embedded in his ear or some ditty like "Til There Was
        You,'' which he heard as kid in the movie "The Music Man.''

        Whatever the tune, "it's really important for me to somehow absorb it
        deep down in me, so I'm thinking not about it any technical way, or
        thinking about keys or chord names,'' says Frisell, who just came home
        from a West Coast tour with pedal steel guitarist Greg Leiz and
        violinist Jenny Scheinman.

        "When I'm really playing, it's almost like someone walking down the
        street whistling and not even being aware they're whistling. Well, I
        guess it's a little more intense than that. Sometimes I'll think of
        the words, or at least a few phrases if I don't know all the words.
        Sometimes just the title will make you think about a certain feeling
        you're trying to get across.

        "But I also realize that the feeling I have playing has nothing to do
        with how it's going to be perceived by the people listening to it.
        What might be sad for me somebody else might think of as funny. I want
        people to feel something, but the goal for me isn't to make them feel
        what I'm feeling. I just want to trigger something. Music is so huge,
        it's infinite. Within one song there are millions of little moments
        that can trigger any kind of emotion.''

        The feeling Frisell tries to express changes from performance to
        performance, depending on the sound of the room, what happened to him
        that day, the vibe of the audience.

        "Music has always been the place for me where anything is possible,''
        he says. "You can just do whatever you want, and it doesn't hurt
        anybody. You can try anything -- you can jump off a cliff, or a tall
        building. You can be aggressive or not. It doesn't do anything but
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