Clip: Bill Frisell
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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