The Music of Bill Frisell
Arranged for Orchestra and Conducted by Mike Gibbs
Performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Bill Frisell and Joey Baron at
The Barbican in London – 11/10/09

Free spirit with a big canvas
November 12, 2009
By Mike Hobart

Frisell emphasises the organic nature of his work and the contributions of those around him. “I have been so fortunate with this ever-growing circle of people that I can play with, who all know my music,” he says. “You can follow a thread through all my projects. Someone in one project will be in another. They are all related somehow.” And for Frisell, this is good medicine. “Even with the same group from night to night, I don’t ever want it to really be the same.”

This is built into Frisell’s compositional method. “Sometimes I do write out things, and this can be very specific, but somehow they start having a life of their own. I’m hoping for that. I can write something in three or four parts, and everyone will look at the same thing, but we’re all free to choose.”

Even his trademark Americana is investigative rather than documentarian. “I grew up in the middle of that country,” he explains. “And the older I get, I guess I keep looking back trying to figure out where I come from and why.” This, he says, feeds into the music. “But I don’t really think about it, I become aware of things after the fact, when someone brings it to my attention.”

He has played with orchestras before, “but usually this is what other people have written”. With long-term collaborator Mike Gibbs writing the orchestration for this event, the omens are good that Frisell’s group ethic and spontaneity will transfer to a larger canvas. Gibbs, says Frisell, was “one of the first people to let me be myself”.
Gibbs, meanwhile, calls Frisell’s music “an ever-evolving collage”, with a core repertoire spread over six to eight ensembles and “room for a lot of spontaneity”. Though he is not “looking to make the orchestra improvise”, he is treating it as though it is one member of one of Frisell’s groups; roles will be swapped and techniques shared. And to make sure proceedings don’t become too pre-ordained, Gibbs is bringing in drummer Joey Baron, a long-term Frisell colleague, as a free spirit with a roaming commission. “Joey will have no [musical] part other than ‘this is what Bill is doing’. I needed a loose, unwritten element.”

For Paul Hughes, the BBCSO’s general manager, too many jazz and symphony collaborations are “tokenistic and not very effective”. But this one promises to be different. Frisell’s leanness of line has been likened to the work of Miles Davis, in which case Gibbs may be to Frisell what arranger Gil Evans was to Davis – and Hughes has found his guarantee of the genuine article.