ON THE ROAD TO BILL
It's tempting to imagine Bill Frisell at 14, Denver junior-high band nerd, practicing every day on his clarinet, the best in school, but really just beginning to tame it, to fully rid himself of the nasty squonks that stiff-reeded horn is prone to. He's sitting in a chair facing a wire stand with a piece of paper propped on it, moving his fingers over the keys, reading the lattice of notes to Tchaikovksy's "March Slav,' or "Stars and Stripes Forever.' It's late summer, cooling down toward evening, and somewhere down the block a radio starts playing the Byrds' "Eight Miles High.' He can barely hear it but it pulls him away from his practice, makes him open the window a little wider. That strange strangled lead, the insistent drums. The words are too distant to make out, but there's something otherworldly in it, something different from and more exciting than anything he's heard come off of a score. It's earthy and ethereal, and out of reach. Suddenly, the clarinet in his hands feels like an inert hunk of wood and metal, its range impossibly small. It makes him wonder if all this practice is a trap he's fallen into, if thinking about music in only one way - the way that says music is like a library of books that you learn to read - will, in the end, lock it away from him.
Whatever the exact context of his revelation, young Frisell came up with a strategy for breaking free. He began spending his time with an instrument he was blind in. 'When I first started playing guitar," explains Frisell from his home in Seattle, "it was like a completely different side of my brain was working. Clarinet was a real intellectual process. I read well, read music, and played in orchestras and chamber groups. But when I started playing guitar, I just sort of did it all on my own. It was weird. I couldn't read music on the guitar, but I could figure out stuff from records."
At first, he had messed with a neighbor's six-string, then a cheap acoustic wheedled out of his parents for Christmas, but in ninth grade Frisell bought a Fender Mustang and Deluxe amp with money earned from a paper route."It seemed like as soon as I got an electric guitar, then it was official," Frisell says. He started playing Beatles and Stones and Byrds tunes with the kids in his neighborhood.
Later, with the help of a good teacher, Frisell would fold his reading knowledge back into his guitar work, even the hollow timbre of the clarinet would, eventually, reappear like a ghost through his use of effects. But the choice was decisive, and only the first in a series of turning points in which he chose the unknown over the familiar in the service of the music "out there," the sound he heard and somehow knew he could play.
Frisell recently passed another of these crossroads, and it hasn't been easy. It was more complicated than a kid picking up anew instrument, and this time it wasn't entirely his choice. For more than a dozen years, he'd been making music with drummer Joey Baron and bassist Kermit Driscoll. The rapport of that famous trio had gone beyond mere familiarity. Listen to the live performances from 1991 that Gramavision released a couple of years back. The three musicians push each other mercilessly, yet with sensitivity. At times they create the beautiful, the furious, the abstract with the ease of nature. You hear reeds on water, a fire burning, the thick silence around a pattern of Stars.
The trouble was that Baron was growing out of the Bill Frisell Band. For several years, the guitarist had himself been stretching, extending the trio with horn players and accordionists into sextets and septets, now Baron was feeling his own pull toward something "out there." "I think that what happened was that over the years I Started getting a sense of being a leader," Baron explains, "of putting my own thinking out there as a leader. You can't be squeezing it out between everybody's tours. I needed to give myself the space to do it."
It was a desire Frisell couldn't object to, he'd been through it himself years before, he left a very productive position as house guitarist for ECM to pursue his own development, to "stand up and be a man," as he puts it. But he couldn't bear the idea of replacing Baron, any more than he could think of replacing Driscoll, a member of his own family for that matter. It would be unimaginable, impossible. The solution was to step out from the comfort of the trio altogether.
It's not that they won't play together again, as Baron emphatically submits. In fact, Frisell and Baron made music for much of the month of January this year. "It was like a dream," says Baron, "to work in different situations where we're both respected." Their mutual effort included the premiere of a double concerto for drums, electric guitar, and orchestra in New York and San Francisco, as well as sessions for an upcoming release by bassist Marc Johnson. Frisell is, in addition, a key player on a new Baron project, featuring Arthur Blythe and Ron Carter, that should be out on Intuition in the fall. Still, for Baron, disbanding the trio was "almost like a marriage breaking up." Even if it seemed necessary, Even if it was amicable, some things got torn a bit .
"One of the most painful things is not playing with Kermit lately," admits Frisell."'Cause we were best friends for like 20 years, so that's hard. We needed to go through this growing process. But it's always painful. Growing is not easy."
Frisell decided to try something entirely different. He gathered together three acoustic players - a trumpeter, Ron Miles; a trombonist, Curtis Fowlkes; and a violinist, Eyvind Kang -and no rhythm section at all. "I didn't want to just get another drummer; and then always be thinking, 'Oh, I wonder what Joey would be doing.' So the quartet was kind of perfect. 'I just won't have any bass or drums."' Since all three of the other players were essentially lead voices, Frisell was constrained to build the role of "rhythm section" into the arrangements or act as bass-and-drums himself. This may sound terribly limiting, but the best art often arises in response to odd or severe limitations. Frisell's new quartet ended up making the music he had been refining openly since 1993's Have a Uttle Faith better, perhaps, than any previous configuration. Last year's Quartet, with its fresh vision and odd make-up, may well be the best solo record he's made.
Another project that presented itself around this time was the brainchild of Frisell's record company, Nonesuch. One imagines most players walk in dread of the moment when the suits say, "Hey, listen, we've got a great idea..." It's usually a money thing - at best a mixed blessing, more often, painfully obvious or obviously wrong. Here's the germ of the idea: People keep saying that Frisell has this traditional American-music thing going, that he has this country sound coming through. Why not take that idea head on, surround him with a bunch of great bluegrass players and see what kind of music comes out of the cross-pollination? Frisell liked the idea immediately and the universe (through his label and net- work of musician friends) conspired to make it happen.
So a month after recording Quartet, a time when he could have been enjoying a well-deserved break. he was back in the studio with vocalist Robin Holcomb, doing the preliminary recordings for this other album (eventually to be called Nashville). They recorded a number of tunes, and three of them - Neil Young's "One of These Days;' Hazel Dickens' odd gospel gem "Will Jesus Wash, the Bloodstains From Your Hands?" and Skeeter Davis' "End of the World" -made it onto the final, mostly instrumental, recording.
It was another year before Frisell could get all the other musicians together; but the result is something lovely and rare. It's not so much Bill Frisell doing country or bluegrass as it is bluegrass springing up in a space cleared by Frisell the composer; then tended by Frisell the guitarist. Frisell's Nashville is no place in particular, certainly not the center of commercial country music. Rather, the recording comes across as a postcard from some wistful utopia, the perfect home you never had but long for nonetheless.
The pace and ambiance of Nashville is very comfortable. It sounds not pat, by any means, but like it had a good chance to ripen before the mics and recorders were turned on. The narrative of its development, you might think, could be this: Frisell takes some time to let the idea percolate, gradually writes some tunes for the personnel he has selected or imagines, picks the best, lets the others settle out, structures some fairly detailed arrange- ments, then pulls everybody together for rehearsals; finally, the whole crew rolls into the studio, and they perform their most gorgeous versions of the music they are already well familiar with.
That scenario could hardly be further from the truth. In fact, Nashville was yet another of Frisell's launches into the unknown, another instance in which he set himself in the arms of music (and great musicians) and trusted in his instincts and abilities to pull disparate voices together into something coherent and compelling.
"The second thing someone will say about my playing is that there's this country influence," says Frisell,"but I never really played the real thing. It was sort of like if I had gone to India to play with some people. I had no idea what was going to happen."
And there were just a couple of days in which he could get all these guys together - certainly no time for rehearsals. The busy people he had called included Viktor Kraus, of Lyle Lovett's band; Adam Steffey and Ron Block. who played with Viktor's sister; Alison Kraus; bluegrass legend and dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas; old friend and producer (and husband of Robin Holcomb) Wayne Horvitz; and harmonica player Pat Bergeson. Basically, the musicians landed in the studio at the same time, shook hands, and started playing.
Jerry Douglas didn't even know Frisell when he got the invitation to work on this record."He'd heard stuff that I had done," Douglas says, "but my only knowledge of Bill was through Bela Fleck. who's my next-door neighbor." And the roughs Douglas got on tape didn't give him a very good idea of what the guitarist was looking for, or how his dobro was going to fit in. It may be a measure of Douglas' trepidation that when he first arrived at the studio to meet Frisell - who was ready to welcome him as a musical hero - he found that he'd forgotten his bar: It was like a fiddle player forgetting his bow. "It's the one thing that sets the instrument apart," Douglas explains. "That had never, ever happened before. I was so embarrassed. I thought. "Oh great. there goes my image with this guy: Everything else was pretty normal after that."
Normal in comparison, but, as Douglas tells it, a little disjointed at first. Then the Frisellian miracle occurred. Suddenly, the music (and Frisell's faith and good humor) began to take precedence over the abruptness of the situation, everything started to jell. The players sat in a circle in the studio and listened, and made music unlike anything they were likely to make separately. Douglas forgot the roughs, forgot whatever words had been spoken. He watched Frisell's body move as he played his guitar; and he used that motion, almost as much as his ears, as a cue for shaping his lines on the dobro.
Part of the reason Frisell is so consistently able to pull off this kind of miracle, in any context, is because of the people he surrounds himself with. When you ask him what he looks for in a musician, he stammers around a little, then says, "It's like a personality thing. Someone who's not so much prejudiced."
For a while when he was developing as a musician, Frisell says, he was "a real jazz-purist top-arch guitar kind of guy." That's decidedly not the kind of musician Frisell most wants to hook up with these days. He prefers someone like Joey Baron or Kermit Driscoll or Paul Motian or John Zorn, musicians willing to get their inspiration from any source that catches their ear and imagination. Or like Jerry Douglas, who, after a little initial skepticism, felt relieved and liberated to be playing something other than another country studio gig. Or like Eyvind Kang, the young violinist in Frisell's quartet who, Frisell,says,"is open to everything. He's classically trained from when he was really small, but he just knows a lot about every kind of music that you can imagine. He can go from playing a Bach violin sonata to crushing his violin on the floor wrth a brick or something." When Frisell gets this kind of musician in a performing unit or into the studio, he repays their openness with trust. "He knows exactly what he wants out of his music." Joey Baron says,"but the thing that's really great about it is that he lets people explore what they want to do with it first. That one little stage of letting the person do what they would do under their own judgment, that's really generous. He's willing to go down the road to explore where that takes you." Ron Miles, trumpeter in the Bill Frisell Quartet, sounds much the same. "It almost feels like it's your band sometimes:' he says. "He's so generous."
Frisell's is a generosity born of faith and daring. "What keeps me going, I guess, is always reaching out for something more." Frisell says."It's always been like that. There's a sound out there that I can't get to, I can't even hear it clearly. But I know it's there."
Now, with a new working group in the quartet, and a new group of relationships in Nashville, he's dreaming of further permutations for getting closer. Last December, he did a series of sessions for another Nonesuch project with rock drummer Jim Keltner; whose credentials range from Eric Clapton to the Traveling Wilburys. "Sometimes I fantasize about mixing all these things together," Frisell says, excitedly, "like the quartet with Jerry Douglas playing with us, or the quartet with Jim Keltner and Viktor as a rhythm section, or all those Nashville guys and Jim Keltner."
Bill Frisell hasn't forgotten his earliest lessons. He's still ready to take his eyes off the score, to open the window a little wider.