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Clip: Bill Frisell

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  • Carl Z.
    No rules, no boundaries for Frisell Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 2 , Mar 15, 2007
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      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
      good.''
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