DOWN BEAT

By Ted Panken

A Week In Umbria With The Guitarists' 'Home Base' of Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestone streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel from 1740. Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, began a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialogue with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This began a free-associative, genre-spanning suite, each declarative melody transitioning into another— “Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialogue, feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seventune set. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, Martino spun out high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. He tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions.

Throughout the week in July, the juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.

“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the day after his opening set. Sitting in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, Frisell wore a white T-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops and horizontally striped socks in bright colors.

ELECTRIC SOUND PAINTINGS

The first half of Bill Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery, consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton. In 1996 he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole d’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.

“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music, I’d probably do something like that. When I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”

In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldberg-esque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.

Frisell’s father was a biochemist. Does he reference that aspect of his background in his musical production?

“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”

That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.

“Bill embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City, after spending her early 20s mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”

Frisell doesn’t practice the sonic combinations that he conjures up or the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘OK, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.” —T.P.

“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he said. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ’70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out and it was this moment of despair. I realized I’d never be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”

Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I want to play, but my hands are like ... I haven’t been playing my guitar much. So I thought, ‘I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”

Frisell has several bands, and works on myriad projects. But he regards the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard and performs on Unspeakable, East/West and the new History, Mystery (Nonesuch)—as “home base.”

“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter,” Frisell said, “but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, my mind has been obliterated.”

He broke off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. By the time Tony and Kenny came along, I’d been listening to a lot of music I hadn’t heard much before—songs by Hank Williams, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from— thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing.

“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers,” he continued. “In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song ‘Mood.’ Tony knows 20 different versions, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But at the same time they respect me. They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”

Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” Scherr said the morning after a midnight trio set. The clear sky afforded a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside Hotel Brufani Palace, the festival’s nerve center. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.

“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” Scherr continued. “When I was around 14, I met a guy who introduced me to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. We’d play what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then turn off the lights and play free. It all lived in the same room—I never thought about the difference between genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people want to interpret them, be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”

 

In the ’80s Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ’90s he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider and joined Wollesen in Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob.

“Maria started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he laughed. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist In The Wind (Smells Like), on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle and Bill came to the gig. He called me soon after and we started playing. I’m glad it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like.

“I had been a fan of Bill’s music for a long time, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about,” he continued. “It was comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”

About a half-hour later, Wollesen strolled through Perugia’s narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops and taverns setting up for lunch. He settled in at a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. In the distance, the Coolbone Brass Band from New Orleans warmed up for its noontime ballyhoo.

“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “His ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s uncanny. His technique is off the hook, but it’s not fast or speedy. People think that’s what technique is, but it’s not that.

“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music,” he continued. “He’s never said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”

Wollesen’s associations with the likes of John Zorn, Butch Morris, Bernstein, Norah Jones and Sean Lennon lead listeners to peg him as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, Calif., he played in a local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin. He also worked as a janitor at the Kuumbwa Jazz Workshop to gain free admission. There, he observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins and Motian.

Toward the end of the ’80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business. That means being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something you learned or already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, you’ve lost it.

“I think about painters,” he continued. “They’ll spend hours by themselves, but finally there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. They spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”

In November, Frisell’s trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new Bill Morrison film.

“It will take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “I’m writing music with no parameters. In some ways, having the film boxes you in, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night. The limitations can also push you out into someplace you’ve never been.”

Frisell, Scherr and Wollesen sat around a table in the same walled-off area in back of the Rosetta Hotel dining room, as the kitchen staff prepared the luncheon buffet. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.

Frisell and Scherr turned the conversation to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations— mutual intuition, shared language and trust. Wollesen, feeling awkward at expressing himself on such intimate matters, listened intently, but said little.

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “I’ve always liked being in bands that develop something together. When people play music together and travel, personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip, a running joke or a running topic. The next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes. The music becomes less precious and opens up—you feel free to demolish stuff together. ”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he said. “For instance, in ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just see how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now, that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, air and humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in his life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “Listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003–’05 engagement as musical director of the German concert series Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played ‘Lovesick Blues’ a couple of times and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out and prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird thing we don’t talk about. Playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.” DB