Reckless Introvert
By Dan Ouellette, Photography by Kevin Ellsworth

It's a gray, drippy Seattle day in early January and Bill Frisell is pretty psyched. Today, he's going to one of his favorite hangs: Andersen's Stringed Instruments, where owner Steven Andersen is almost finished handcrafting Frisell's first custom-made guitar. As Frisell enters the shop, he can't hide his excitement as he goes to the workbench and touches the guitar's flamed-maple back and spruce top. "Now you can really call yourself a jazz guitarist," says Andersen, who's familiar with Frisell's more current work that crisscrosses many genre borders. "But you'll have to study Charlie Christian's chops to play this guitar."

Frisell shakes his head no. "It's not like I'm going to tryout something new on this guitar. But as I get rid of all the garbage I've been using - the volume pedal and some of my electronic stuff - I want to go back to hearing the real sound the guitar makes." What? Bill Frisell without his mad-scientist's rack of effects and his distinctive volume pedal that he once vowed he would never abandon?

He explains: "You see, I had been using a compressor, which squashes the dynamics when you play louder and softer. Then I would use the volume pedal to compensate. Basically they were just cancelling each other out. It took me 20 years to figure out that I didn't need either to get the sound I wanted." Plus, with his feet freed up, he's no longer fixed to one spot on the stage. "It's not like I'm going to be dancing around, but if I want to move to hear the hi-hat cymbals better, I just walk closer. It sure is nice to move around and hear the music from a different perspective."

Frisell has made a career out of "different perspectives," embracing music from many sources and using what he's learned by osmosis to compose his own passionate albeit oftentimes loopy tunes. His idiosyncratic guitar voicings are infused with rock and country influences as much as with jazz (he snarls, jokes, shrieks, muses, grooves, caresses and joyrides on his instrument). His beautifully melodic compositions are laced with wry humor. And his bands feature odd combinations of instrumentation (his latest group is a quartet without a standard bass-drum rhythm section). In short, this mild-mannered guitarist is a downright rebel who has miraculously been given free rein by his record company, Nonesuch, to follow his muse.

You'd never guess that meeting or talking to him. Frisell speaks softly, laughs easily, sighs periodically, occasionally grimaces as if he's done or said something wrong or potentially offensive, and often cuts off his sentences without completely finishing his thought. But get the aw-shucks Frisell on the bandstand, and presto! - he's a musical savage. "The stage is the place where I can do anything I want with music, where anything's possible, where I can break rules and nobody ever gets hurt," he says. "It's not like driving a car a hundred miles an hour through a red light and killing all these people. But with music you can be just as reckless in other ways."

Frisell bloomed as a guitarist when he began to cross. pollinate the lyrical flow of jazz guitarists he was studying with the grit and jolt of all his electric guitar rock heroes from the '60s. "I had gone to Berklee for one semester, studied with Jim Hall for a while and then returned to Denver. But the prospects of making a living with my guitar looked bleak." An ES-175-playing friend, Mike Miller, began blasting off with rock riffs on his axe, which in turn inspired Frisell to rethink his commitment to playing straight ahead jazz.

"A light went off. It seemed that what I had been doing was dishonest I was denying [the validity of] the time I had spent trying to figure out how to play Hendrix and Clapton licks. Learning jazz was valuable because I got the basics. But bringing my own experiences back into that late-'50s / early-'60s jazz thing, when that's when everything exploded wide open." Frisell returned to Berklee, studied with Herb Pomeroy and made a point of playing "avoid notes" - those notes you're cautioned not to use when you play a chord - in search of richer sounds to link him further to his past. "That's all I've been doing ever since, except that it keeps getting bigger. Now I'm going way back to when I was a kid, performing in a marching band, playing clarinet, even remembering songs I heard when I was two years old. Whatever comes up, I'm going to use and not judge even if someone thinks it's not cool."

Speaking of unorthodox musical approaches, take Frisell's new quartet, which features violinist/tuba player Eyvind Kang, trumpeter Ron Miles and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. To discuss the genesis of this group, you have to start with the demise of his longstanding trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron. "Well," Frisell starts out slowly, searching for the right words. "Joey ...he didn't exactly quit. He really wants to put more time into his own band."

Frisell says that the last thing in the world he wanted to do was replace Baron. Then he began thinking that he had been playing with the same rhythm team for so long, they were like a safety net for him. "I wasn't even sure if I could play without them. So I thought I'd do something completely different and form a new band without drums or bass."

In addition to everyone in the group having to perform double duty supplying rhythms, Frisell says that the combo of instruments affords him the freedom to work on a more orchestral sound. "It's so different from the traditional guitar-bass-drum thing, even though Joey, Kermit and I never played like a typical jazz trio. This group, with the violin and brass, can play an orchestral range of sounds. It's gigantic. It's given me a chance to write and arrange in an even bigger way. I do have a lot less freedom for what I can play because there's a lot more to negotiate with four people than three. But it's also put right in my face certain musical challenges, such as the time factor. You know, making sure a tune doesn't slow down or speed up. That's the reason I got all these guys. They all have a great sense of rhythm."

For Quartet, the group's new CD (produced by longtime associate Lee Townsend) , Frisell dipped into his portfolio of recent film scores: a couple pieces from the Buster Keaton silent short Convict 13, another two from the sound track he wrote for the Italian film La Scuola, and then a half dozen from Tales From The Far Side, an animated TV special created by cartoonist/good friend Gary Larson that aired in the fall of 1994. He then rearranged the pieces to allow for more improvisational latitude. He also tossed into the mix a couple impromptu numbers and a reworking of 'Twenty Years," a solo guitar piece from his Is That you? album. 'That's the perfect example of what this quartet can do," Frisell says. "This song takes on a new life and is given a clarity it never had before." like much of Frisell's previous work, Quartet finds the guitarist and company meandering through vast musical terrains. Case in point the opening tune, "Tales From The Far Side" (the main theme of the TV show) , which begins as a lyrical, whimsical waltz and ends with Frisell coaxing his guitar to play distant explosions and quiet screams. Structurally the piece hooks up with Larson's visuals, which move in a floating motion over hills and end inside a barn owned by Frankenstein. Other tunes include "Egg Radio," based on a cartoon segment entitled 'The Egg Beater Massacre," "Bob's Monsters," about a truck accident involving monsters and garden rakes, and "In Deep," which makes allusions to the cowboy tune "Deep In The Heart Of Texas."

A common thread running through Quartet is the juxtaposition of the playful and lyrical with the dark and foreboding. "Much of what I do deals with opposites. I like things to be delicate and spaced out, but I want the music to kick ass, too." There's also a compelling mixture of mirth and melancholy in his compositions that evokes the spirit of Buster Keaton. "The more I watched his films, the more I recognized his genius. I felt like I got to know him. I always thought of him as just a guy who fell down a lot. But there's a dark sadness in his films. The surface may be slapstick and funny, but there are a lot of different emotional layers at work. I hope to get that same vibe with my music."

In the last year and a half, Frisell-one of the most in-demand guitarists in the jazz ranks as well as arguably the shyest cat in the biz-has been working overtime, traveling nearly non-stop throughout North America and Europe. He's had a jammed calendar gigging with his own groups, putting the finishing touches on Quartet, contributing his distinctive guitar licks to countless collaborations and recording sessions with a wide range of peers from Gary Peacock to Elvis Costello, and most recently setting up camp in Nashville with his close friend Wayne Horvitz, who assembled a crack crew of musicians for a brilliant country disc that should see the light of day later this year or early next January.

But on this particular afternoon, Frisell finds himself in the midst of his first extended stretch of time in the last 15 months where he doesn't have to pack his bags, buckle up his guitar case and hit the road again. So, when he's not hanging out in guitar shops, how does this guitar superhero in the body of a classic introvert spend his down time? Frisell notes that he's taken up bicycle riding since he and his family (his daughter Monica is in fourth grade) fled New York/New Jersey in 1989 for more spacious digs in Seattle. He sheepishly admits that he frequents a Barnes & Noble book and record complex located not far from his neighborhood, close to the university district of the city. He's a little embarrassed that he likes such a chain-store operation, but figures there's no other place nearby where he can lounge in comfortable chairs and leaf through books and magazines. He hastens to add that he does spend time digging through CD bins in the record stores on University Way near the University of Washington campus. And then he mentions the occasionally low-key guitar jams with Gary Larson, who lives nearby.

Frisell, his brown hair graying around the temples as he approaches 45, truly deserves these opportunities to chill out and recharge. In addition to his prolific musical output with his own bands (last year Nonesuch released two albums of Keaton sound track music and Gramavision issued a live trio date recorded in 1991), the guitarist has been buried up to his peghead working with several collaborators, including Ginger Baker (Going Back Home, Atlantic Jazz) , Gary Peacock (lust So Happens, Postcards), Elvis Costello (Deep Dead Blues, Warner Brothers/Nonesuch import) and another Seattle neighbor, Michael Shrieve (Fascination, CMP). And that's only scratching the surface.

"My experiences have been great, " he says, relaxing over a late lunch at the Longshoreman's Daughter Cafe, down the street from Andersen's shop. "I feel very lucky. I met Gary Peacock playing a date with Paul Motian. We had a vague conversation then about doing something sometime. When we finally recorded the duo album, we really hooked up. I'd love to play with him again. Same with Elvis. We met working on Hal Winner's Weird Nightmare Mingus project He invited me to play at the Meltdown Festival in London last June, and we recorded the show. We rehearsed for a half an hour and did the gig. I love working with vocalists."

As for his collaboration with Baker - the fulfillment of a long-term dream by music journalist/producer Chip Stern to bring the drummer, guitarist and bassist Charlie Haden together - Frisell beams: "That was fun. It was really amazing. I mean, that goes way back. I went to see Cream play in 1966 or '67, so that's deep down inside my subconscious. Boy, to get to play with Ginger. I'm not sure he even knew who I was. I just walked into the studio, introduced myself and we tried to find something in common. It was a thrill." He grins like a little kid, then laughs. "Ginger'd play a beat and for a second I thought I was Eric Clapton."

Frisell reports that he recently went back into the studio with Baker and Haden for round two, an album that also features Bela Fleck on a couple tracks and guitarist Jerry Hahn. Working with the latter was a special treat. "Jerry was another one of my heroes that I always forget to talk about. It was so cool to meet and play with him. My pat answer for the country influences in my music is that I grew up in Colorado. But when I really think about it, it was Jerry's deep country playing on the Tennessee Firebird album Gary Burton made in Nashville that really inspired me."

Like any great musician who finally discovers his voice, Frisell says that his signature playing refers back to many musicians. He went through a period where he was emulating Jim Hall, right down to the such details as guitar make, amp size and performance mannerisms. Then he tried in vain to play like John McLaughlin. "Physically, I wasn't able to get the speed thing down. But thats around the time that I began to realize what I couldn't do and recognize what I had. Thats when I was ready to find my own way. Its all about being honest."

Equally important in forming his distinctive guitar voice, Frisell says, has been his session work, most notably with Motian, with whom he continues to tour. "I get so much from standing on stage next to him and hearing what he's playing. It generates things I could never come up with myself." And then there's John lorn, who Frisell credits with shaking him out of a comfortable zone several years ago by expanding his guitar vocabulary with new structures and speed.

Frisell's reserved, unpretentious demeanor begs the question: Does he realize how good a guitarist he is? He's embarrassed and responds with bashful modesty that borders on self-deprecation. "I feel pretty inadequate. I don't have that much command of the instrument and there's so much more I need to know about music. Its so overwhelming. I'm getting better, but sometimes I still feel the same way I did the second week I started playing the guitar. I still can't believe I'm making records. Being in polls and stuff ... that can be incredibly distracting and dangerous."

As if on cue, Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue begins playing over the speakers at the Longshoreman's Daughter Cafe. Frisell pauses to listen, then adds, "Once I start thinking I have it together, all I have to do is hear one note played by Miles, and forget it. Now, thats reality. Thats something to aspire to."