By John Ephland
Sitting across from Bill Frisell in his hotel room in Chicago seems to be the only way to stop what appears to be a musician in perpetual motion. Frisell plays like he talks. Unassuming, his guitar tone tends to be soft (as in soft-spoken), his sustain not unlike his suspended thoughts, notes and chords floating across bars as if they were running through waist-deep water-running with no need to arrive. One can hear a crafted balance between echo and well-placed notes, dreaminess alongside penetrating sounds that keep the music on a string. And getting the shy artist to talk about it can be like nailing Jell-O to a tree.
The famously self-effacing Frisell can’t seem to keep track of all the collaborations that have helped propel him across genre lines and international borders. “I recorded with Paul Simon,” he says sheepishly, his six-foot-plus frame mingling with a slightly hunched back, graying mantle and wire-rim glasses as he adjusts in his chair. It sounds like an afterthought, when suddenly his eyes light up as he remembers the sessions. “It’s for his new album,” he continues. “But I don’t know what I played on one or two songs.” The guitarist, memory now completely jogged, goes on to talk about a field day of sorts, The Ruhn Triennale Arts Festival, where he was music director for its 2003-2004 season. “I did a series of concerts in Germany, and I was sort of the, I don’t know, the director or something,” Frisell says demurely. “A part of this festival was called “A Century of Song.” So I did a whole bunch of concerts with singer/songwriters.”
At times sounding like a clear eyed Ratso Rizzo minus the marbles, Frisell adds, as if he is reporting who he spent time with on the school playground that day, “I also played on a new Rickie Lee Jones record [The Evening of My Best Day]. But it all happened in Germany. That’s where some of it evolved into doing albums, like with Loudon Wainwright. I also did an album with Vic Chesnutt; he’s a great songwriter.”
Over time, Frisell’s better-known collaborators have included Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Marianne Faithful, David Sanborn, Ginger Baker, Bono, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and Daniel Lanois for the soundtrack to Wim Wender’s 2000 film The Million Dollar Hotel. Costello and Frisell, in particular, have worked on several projects: 1995’s Deep Dead Blue (duets, including a smoochy cover of “Gigi”) and 1999’s The Sweetest Punch: The New Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. “I got the hear the songs Elvis and Burt wrote before anybody else,” Frisell says of Costello’s music for The Sweetest Punch, an album he arranged for extended ensemble based on the same demos from which Costello and Bacharach created Painted From Memory. “There was a demo tape with Elvis and Burt, along with piano scores. From there I arranged the music. The whole experience was a thrill for me.”
Bill Frisell’s first thrill–life–bagan in Baltimore in 1951, though the gamily soon moved to Colorado. Frisell was a clarinetist all during his Denver childhood though, by the way of radio, he caught wing of Chicago blues and a guitar soon replaced the woodwind. Electricity emerged in the embodied souls of Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King, among others. As pop and soul covers began filling his growing repertoire, the idea of playing in bands hit him in high school. After studying music at Northern Colorado and Berklee in Boston, Frisell concentrated on writing and playing with new musicians in Europe before moving to New York in 1979 and settling in as part of the new “downtown” expat/longtime colleague Wayne Horvitz.
One of Frisell’s more important and significant partnerships has been with drummer Paul Motian, an innovator whose loose-limbed, idiosyncratic sound has been heard with Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans, (with whome he made a name for himself in the early 1960’s), Keith Jarrett and just about everybody who is anybody in jazz. He brought Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano into his fold in the ‘80s, the three recording a number of acclaimed albums over the years. This year’s I Have The Room Above Her brings the trio into the studio for the first time in over ten years for a record that both frezzes time and accelerates it, offering dreamy soundscapes and witty repartee.
Another recent project is the self-titled album with singer/songwriter/violinist Petra Haden, in which they play a mix of pop standards, new songs and material by Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, Coldplay and Foo Fighters, among others.
And, like most quiet types, Frisell has been known to explode on occasion. And we have sound sharks like john Zorn, Vernon Reid, Elliott Sharp and Ronald Shannon Jackson to thank for sticking his fingers in sockets he might not approach otherwise, reminding us that Jimi Hendrix was a major influence (along with Monk, Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis).
Frisell’s recent trip to Chicago was on the occasion of a concert appearance with some other colleagues and influences–jazz legends Lee Konitz and Paul Bley–for a Konitz tribute at Symphony Center (a concert that also included drummer Joey Baron and bassist Drew Gress). Asoed to comment on how he can go from Lee Konitz to country to polkas to art abstraction, he pauses, starts, stops, and says, eventually, “Music is such a wide, cast thing. So for me to gofrom one thing to another, I’m not really changing what I do. I don’t hear anything that divides jazz from country music, or world music, or any music. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all coming from the same place.
“Mostly when we play,” Frisell says of his working relationship with Konitz, “he’s using standard songs that we all know. But it’s weird how it sort of drifts in and out. Sometimes it will stay right in the form of the song and sometimes it can get really different. But using standard songs that we all know as a foundation.
“But as far as being a guitar player,” he pauses, “I don’t really change what I do. I mean, I just enjoy putting myself in different situations. That’s what’s so amazing about music; that’s where my whole social life is,” he laughs. “That’s how I interact with people, and that’s the place where it just seems like, sort of, the perfect world where anything can happen.”
Richter 858, one of two current albums, is perhaps as good a testament as any to both Frisell’s virtuosity and reputation. The disc is a commissioned collection of songs written for an elaborate art book trumpeting German painter Gerhard Richter. Along with his own stable of guitars and some electronics, he incorporates the 858 Quartet featuring Hank Roberts, Eyvind Kang and Jenny Scheinman (and named for the series of eight small abstract paintings numbered 858 1-8 that served as inspiration). Together they perform fairly abrasive abstract music to go along with what is pretty out-there art.
A break from his more spontaneous, free-flowing style, Frisell confesses, “I really had to write music within that kind of framework.” Unspeakable, Frisell’s other recent album and this year’s Grammy winner for best contemporary jazz album, stays in a punkish, country “we’re not from her” land of suspended animation. “That was about doing something with Hal Willner,” Frisell says. An accomplice of Bill’s dating back 20 years and normally “just” a highly regarded producer, Frisell says Willner’s role as a musician was important enough for him to play those turntables and add samples that show up and play such a vital role in the creation of Unspeakable.
Perhaps Unspeakable refers to Bill Frisell’s uncategorizable nature. How does he keep it all straight, playing so many unrelated styles? “To me, there’re not unrelated because it’s all music,“ Frisell insists. “And what I’m doing is not unrelated. I don’t really change, I’m just using the same instincts. You know, the context might cause me to react in a different way, but there’s room to react.
“It bothers me this whole high and low thing. I mean, the whole idea that one music is better or worse, higher or lower, that just seems absurd to me.” Speaking as if they are there with him in the same room right at that moment, Frisell blurts, “I mean, just take the guitar and what’s possible with that … Robert Johnson and Segovia, they both play exactly the same instrument. They have their own complexities.”