ALL ABOUT JAZZ
By Celeste Sunderland
Sometimes music creates such an intense atmosphere that it begins to control the listener's breathing. The pulse connects to the tempo. Touch becomes intensely sensual, while the mind drifts to otherworldly realms. When Bill Frisell plays his guitar every wavering, undulating, sustaining note hangs in the air until the room fills with an invisible, dreamlike fog, and when he happens back onto a recognizable melody it's the most beautiful thing in the world, because all those glowing, shuddering sequences of sound suddenly make you understand why you felt so compelled to sit in the audience and watch and listen as the quiet man on stage makes magic.
Like the live performance, Frisell's albums also evoke vivid images and adventurous fantasies. Listening to the gently trolling Ghost Town (Nonesuch, 2000), one envisions Frisell's fingers gracefully swaying over the strings as dusk silently settles over a deserted desert town. Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001) culls up similar visions of cowboy country, but this time you're a solitary rebel rambler, and Frisell is churning some wily sounds out of his ax. On Have A Little Faith (Nonesuch, 1993) Dylan's "Just Like A Woman", and Madonna's "Live To Tell", amidst a smattering of sometimes ecstatic, sometimes somber songs by Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and other American composers, never sounded so poignant.
"With his conception about melody and form, Bill's a real song player," said saxophonist Joe Lovano. "He can play the way he plays within any piece of music. A tune doesn't hold him back. He has an approach that's all his own."
With an equally unique approach to composing, Frisell said he writes melodies on music paper in a stream of consciousness fashion. "It's sort of like I'm in this big ocean of melodies. It's like fishing. I'm just sort of floating through this big ocean of notes and melodies and just kind of grabbing at them and writing them down," he said. "I'll accumulate a pile of junk and later on I'll go back and check it out and widdle it down into something concise."
23 albums as a leader emerged from the "widdled down pile of junk" since his time at the Berklee College of Music in the late '70s. He's written for a variety of groups including a band he created with Brazilian guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, Greek-Macedonian oud player Christos Govetas, Malian percussionist Sidikki Camara, violinist Jenny Scheinman and pedal, dobro and lap steel guitarist Greg Leisz. The group released The Intercontinentals last year.
"All that music is connected," Frisell explained. "Country music and African music, there is so much back and forth - one influencing the other."
Camara and Frisell met at a dinner party after a Seattle music festival where both had played. After the plates were cleared they picked up their instruments. "I didn't know what to play and I played some country song. And he played what he played and to him it just sounded like another one of the tunes they play. And it hooked up so strong," he explained. "It was a great feeling to actually have it happen."
|"It's sort of like I'm in this big ocean of melodies. It's like fishing. I'm just sort of floating through this big ocean of notes and melodies and just kind of grabbing at them and writing them down."|
Intense communication on stage is not a foreign concept for Frisell. He leads two trios, one with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Viktor Krauss, another with Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr. "They're like my best friends," he said. "With the trios, we don't really talk about anything, or figure anything out, or rehearse or anything. Everybody just sort of knows all the music and we just start playing and even though it's usually songs, it's one of the most free situations I've ever played."
A live, two-volume set (one disc from each group) is slated for release on Nonesuch in the not too distant future. The trio with Krauss recorded its session last May at Yoshi's. "It was a good time," recalled Frisell. "We did a few gigs and we drove up the coast of California. It was just a really nice kind of high, good time."
The trio with Scherr recorded its session last December at the Village Vanguard where the group had a two-week run. "It's really a luxurious situation to play," Frisell said. "To play in a club like that for two weeks. I mean I love playing in the Vanguard, but to be able to play two weeks straight is just amazing. Usually 90 percent of the time I'm traveling, trying to get to the next place. So to settle into some place, it really has an impact on the music."
This month he settles into the Vanguard with drummer Paul Motian and Lovano, with a two-week run straddling August and September. "Some of my highest musical moments have been with those guys and it always stays consistently up," Frisell enthused. "When the music gets up into this place where it's sort of unexplainable. The music is just going on and we're playing and it's like that thing where if you become conscious of it, it will stop. With them it gets on to the highest level of communicating with each other. Where nothing has to be figured out or talked about and things will happen that are just sort of. when you think about them later they seem kind of mind blowing. We'll play some whole section all together in the same way in some way we had never thought about playing before."
"That's one of the best things that's happened to me in my whole life," he said about meeting Motian. It happened in 1981. The drummer called the young guitar player on Pat Metheny's recommendation and asked him to play in his band. "That was one of the first situations where someone was calling me to play not because they wanted a guitar player to do a certain thing, but he wanted me to be myself." Lovano joined on with his sax, and Ed Schuller played bass. The group rehearsed every week for about nine months in Motian's Manhattan apartment before their first gig at a club called Ryles in Boston. "It was magical," Lovano recalled. "Very creative. Very spontaneous."
Around 1984 the quartet turned into a bass-less trio. They started rehearsing at Lovano's Chelsea loft where everything was set up including a drum set. "I remember Bill's daughter Monica was a baby at our rehearsal," Lovano said. "As she grew up, through her first four, five years, I remember Monica and Carol, Bill's wife, and my wife Judi. We all were very close."
Frisell lived in New York from 1979 to 1989. After ten years he craved a slower pace, and more space so he could sort out his thoughts and write more. So he moved with his family to Seattle. He likes the air there, and claims it hasn't rained since April. But after getting away from New York, he finds himself falling in love with it again.
"When I go there now I'm actually working every night," he reasoned. "I guess it's not the same as living there. So it's kind of a perfect way to be there. I don't have to worry about all that stuff. I'm usually staying at a hotel or I'm staying with some friends or something and I don't have to worry about the hot water heater breaking and all that kind of stuff."
"Every once in a while I fantasize about moving back. I don't know if I'd do that, but I feel like I really really love that place more than I ever did. In a way it feels like home somehow."