Clip: Bill Frisell
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