THE SEATTLE TIMES MAGAZINE
He enters a dark wood-paneled room lined with books, a library perhaps, and comes to a narrow stairway. He climbs it and comes to a short ladder, which he scales. Soon, he is in a dim room where he meets little men dressed in hoods and looking like miniature monks. They show him colors, the true essence of color, like a red so bright it hurts his eyes. "We know you re a musician," one says, after several samples, "so we're going to show you the essence of music."
Instantaneously, he is enveloped by sound so pure and strong that it bores into his head. It seems to be every music he has ever heard playing at once. What should be CACOPHONY unites into perfect music.
Then Bill Frisell wakes up.
The dream is perhaps two decades old, and Frisell recalls it only in fits and frames. He can't hum the melody or even be sure there was one. He can't tell the style because it seemed to be all styles at the same time. None of that is as important, anyway, as the feeling the dream still gives him and how it still influences his search.
"I could never, obviously, do anything remotely close to that," he said one afternoon before heading into a Madison Park studio, "but I'm always reaching out for something that's outside my grasp. If I didn't have that, there wouldn't seem to be any point. I'm interested in that place between when you're half-asleep and half-awake."
Ever since his first album in 1982, Frisell, who turned 50 last month, has steadily built his own library of music so singular that he is widely considered one of the world's most innovative and unpredictable jazz guitarists and composers.
In fact, his style is so distinctive that the jazz label fits a little too snuggly. He dips into and skips across blues, roots, country, folk, rock, bluegrass and electronic squeaks and squonks. Sometimes, he does all this on the same album, like his most recent, the aptly titled, "Blues Dream."
His guitar work features a full palette, from stylish tones to Hendrix-like feedback to nursery rhyme-inspired riffs, capable of blending in or standing out. He has never been a chart-topper, but has a dedicated fan following, his share of awards and the ability to meld that makes him sought after for ensembles.
Revered jazz guitarists John Scofield and Jim Hall use visual terms like "painter" and "colorist" to describe him. His first guitar teacher, Dale Bruning, chuckles and calls it "Bill Music." Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, famous for his far-out "Far Side" panels and who has collaborated and jammed with Frisell, says the first time he saw him perform live it conjured the image of a mad scientist toiling in a lab.
Seattle jazz keyboardist Wayne Horvitz has produced several of Frisell's albums, played alongside him in the days of the John Zorn-led avant-garde Naked City ensemble in New York, and knows his music as well as anyone. "Describing Bill's music is an exercise in absurdity," Horvitz says. "What is amazing is that the guitar has been the defining instrument of the last 50 years yet he has created his own distinct style in the face of - dare I say it? -too many guitar players."
What they all hear is the enveloping, dreamy quality - the way his music rings, lilts and oozes, wafts then darts, lulls then startles, takes a comfortable feeling and scrambles it into something new.
What makes his music seem even more other-worldly is that the Frisell you meet does not seem to synchronize with the Frisell you hear. With his round-rimmed glasses, graying hair, earth-toned baggy clothes and tennis shoes, he looks like he should be teaching scales, not inventing sounds.
He is a good-sized man, at about 6-feet-1 and 200 pounds, with a stealth presence. Polite and self-deprecating even by Northwest standards, he's got an easy chuckle, a Cheshire-cat grin and a perennial whisper that often falters in mid-sentence. He's droll and peppers his e-mails with words like, "alrighty" and "yes-serrie."
After 19 albums as a band leader or half of a duet, and dozens more as a collaborator, he has attracted enough acclaim and sales that his label, Nonesuch, gives him freedom to do essentially what he likes. Yet he can walk into a music store and buy his own album without being recognized, and he suffers pangs of doubt, claiming to lack basic guitar skills that even average players possess.
This chasm between sound and presence, and the fact he is way out here in Seattle, has earned him the nickname "Clark Kent." But colleagues says it is this very lack of pretense that enables his music to ring so loud. It is distinctive because it's honest. It is honest because it's personal, as if he's channeling.
There's another thought. Frisell, who lives on Bainbridge Island with his wife and teenage daughter, doesn't sound like most musicians because he doesn't quite like them. Seattle's Jimi Hendrix was an influence, but he also is inspired by two of the city's most distinctive cartoonists, Larson and Jim Woodring. Both are known for how observant they are of another side of reality, what most of us call dream-world.
Moving about a cozy home studio cluttered with guitar cases, Frisell admits to a "constant something or other" going on in his mind. Usually, its melodies bobbing like boats among wakes. His wife, Carole, says he doesn't listen to music as much as he studies it. She's been through his phases: listening to tape-recorded Rwandan pygmy music each night, turning on blazing bluegrass at 6:30 in the morning, suddenly rediscovering Thelonius Monk.
When a song comes on the radio that interests him, she says, his eyes glaze over and there are times when he becomes so preoccupied that daughter Monica will yell, "Come back to me!"
Frisell moved to the Bainbridge house from Seattle over the winter because it has enough room for his wife to do her art painting and for him to finally have a home studio, where he can write, jam, test arrangements and record. When he recorded music for the remake of the movie "Psycho" a few years back, he did it in his bedroom.
In one corner of his studio sits a drum set left by longtime collaborator Joey Baron. A small keyboard set stands next to it. A music stand holds notes for a bluegrass song he must learn.
On an old desk there's a small electrionic box that records and regenerates delayed repetitions of what he plays. He uses the device, a digital delay, as companion player, creating the spacey, layered sounds he is known for. Some of what comes out surprises him and forces him to react.
He owns a couple dozen guitars, some of which are on stands that line the room. He has long played a Klein electronic guitar, but increasingly is collecting acoustics as he explorers folk and country sounds.
There's a flamenco from Madrid, a relatively cheap mahogany guitar, another made with rosewood. Frisell owns two archtops built by Seattle luthier Steve Andersen. One he had custom-made; the other was dropped on his doorstep, a gift from Larson.
Aside from the guitars and gizmos, most of the work in his studio takes place at the desk where he writes and arranges. He has written hundreds of compositions. Some come from noodling on the guitar; others go right from his head to paper. He writes for the guitar and then visualizes other instruments.
He learned the rudiments of piano when his daughter took lessons some years ago and he plays "fake banjo" after getting pointers from Port Townsend virtuoso Danny Barnes.
But Frisell's guitar, distinguished by lush, sustained resonance, is most influenced by the clarinet, which he mastered as a diligent high-school student in Denver. He hasn't played it in years, but still recalls how his body vibrated, how the notes lingered, and he applies that instinct for wind tone and phrasing to his guitar.
It is the ability to synthesize carious instruments and styles with his own eclectic musical influences that has made Frisell a composer who is not prolific, but, more importantly, unpredictable.
Frisell was waiting at a stop light near Sixth and Madison in downtown Seattle one weekday afternoon as he tried to wind his way down to Colman Dock and a ferry ride home. Cars, trucks, and vans moved about him in all sizes and directions, like random notes.
Duke Ellington whispered from his car's cassette deck, but Frisell was gushing about the country-chirping Dolly Parton. He was taken by her rendition of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" with the South African band Ladysmith Back Mambazo.
"I mean, that's what makes music so great," he says, "a country girl performing Dylan with an African band!"
An odd choice for a jazz legend, but mixing and matching is what excites Frisell. He accompanies rock drummer Ginger Baker and then jazz bass player Gary Peacock. He begins a concert in Japan by matching his compositions to a Buster Keaton silent film, then plays a reverent rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star." He has created arrangements for music by classical composer Aaron Copland, march king John Philip Sousa, blues master Muddy Waters, pop diva Madonna. On the soundtrack for the film "Finding Forrester," he performs a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" so complex it is virtually unrecognizable.
Driving to the ferry dock, Frisell had just come from a recording studio where eight minutes of his spacey guitar music was put on CD, using delay to loop and layer his sounds. At times, the music seemed to move backward and his guitar impersonated beating drums, whining violins, even a pinging xylophone.
The CD will be a companion to an odd little children's book Jim Woodring has created about a cute pig-like creature who discovers the reaches of his home hold spooky surprises. The music was so trippy that Woodring shouted, "It's perfect!"
With that project done, Frisell was set to travel to various corners of the country and musical terrain: Nashville, to play on a bluegrass singer's album and then jam at a good old-fasioned picking party; San Francisco to mix a recording session he had done a year ago with jazz drumming legend Elvin Jones; back home to Seattle to record with area musicianss, including Barnes; New York for a series of club performances.
For the album "Quartet;' he put together an orchestral, cinematic sound featuring the trumpet, tuba and violin. Many of the songs came from his whimsical scoring of Larson's animated film, "Tales From The Far Side."
For his folksy "Ghost Town" CD, he played acoustic guitar in duets with his delay machine. "For Good Dog, Happy Man," he cooked with rock and blue- grass. This year's "Blues Dream" spread across the entire spectrum.
With 1997's "Nashville," he jumped off a jazz cliff and applied his twist to country classics, playing music he hadn't mastered with top country studio musicians he had never met. It was the first time his guitar had ever matched with a banjo, mandolin or dobro.
It was a mind-opening experience to play with these guys for the first time," he said. "In a way I was lucky that I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't try to play in that style; I just put what I do in that context. It would have been a disaster if I would have tried to play country. I don't know if it was a definitive moment, but I know it influenced everything that came after."
While "Nashville" was a critical and commercial success, some jazz purists seemed put off by it. They complained the innovator was either losing his way, selling out or playing it safe. Frisell sighs. He considers it the riskiest thing he ever did.
"People want to put you in a box. It's a journey for me. You know, you have to go somewhere to get somewhere."
There have been many legs to Frisell's journey since he got his first guitar at Christmas 35 years ago and began strumming to Beatles and Wes Montgomerey records.
He discovered jazz as a senior in high school, thanks to his private instructor, Bruning. And over the next three decades he went through the evolution: starving artist writing home for money; lonely be-bop player giving lessons in a record store and insisting on being "artistic," even at weddings; promising recording artist with cutting-edge German-based jazz label, ECM Records; experimenter with noise and manic riffs amid New York's vibrant '80s down- town scene.
The most important year, though, was 1978 in the tiny Belgian town of Spa. He had sold his possessions and moved there because a Berklee music college classmate had a line on a steady stream of gigs. There were only a few, actually, but he lived above a jazz club and composed songs all day long for a year. At night, he would play downstairs in return for dinner. He met his future wife, who was working as a waitress at the club.
When he and Carole moved to New York in 1979, she worked in a pastry factory, rolling sausage in dough for $2.90 an hour while he did cleaning work and searched for gigs that paid enough to cover gas and parking expenses.
"I remember going to a gig of his that was in this real dive," Carole says. "The cover was 99 cents. Bill was doing this real out-there duet. He was trying to break the music down and figure out where it was all going. Even later, he'd go on a European tour with (jazz drummer) Paul Motian and come back with $500. Everyone was scuffling then and it was like, we're young and in love, so who cares?"
But while playing with Motian, Frisell began building his reputation by playing on several ECM albums and through his inventive work in New York City clubs.
Horvitz was an integral part of that New York jazz scene in the '80s and became a friend and bandmate to Frisell. In fact, he and his wife, the singer Robin Holcomb, lived in the same Hoboken,N.J., apartment building as the Frisells. When Horvitz and Holcomb had their baby daughter, they moved to Seattle in 1988. Frisell came to Seattle that same year to record an album with Horvitz producing. He and Carole had a baby daughter of their own and he felt Seattle was a better place to raise a family. When he moved here in 1989, national music critics treated it as some sort of retirement.
"I guess I came here to hide out a little," Frisell says. "New York was this place of constant input, but you were bombarded with stuff. It was hard to sort out."
Frisell occasionally plays around town, at venues like the Tractor Tavern and the recently closed O.K. Hotel and has hooked up with top area musicians, but his musical approach has been influenced as much by the whimsy and imagination of cartoonists Woodring and Larson.
Woodring's surreal, cinematic art is framed and posted around Frisell's house, and Woodring created the cover for his 1997 album, "Gone, Just Like a Train." In the handwritten album notes, Frisell said he has more in common with Woodring than with most musicians because they are both trying to scratch beyond the conscious veneer.
The one portrait of himself on display in his house is one Larson did to accompany a GQ magazine article several years ago. In the drawing, Frisell's scalp has popped open, exposing the gears, cogs and whirligigs of his brain. A wire runs from brain to guitar.
Larson met Frisell at Jazz Alley several years ago and the two began jamming at each other's homes. The accommodating Frisell focused on blending in with Larson, who plays a classical jazz style. "I was just trying to survive," Larson says. "I think there is something in Bill's personality where he'd rather play with lesser players who make a lot of mistakes but play from the heart than with great players who aren't showing any emotion."
Frisell is eager to collaborate with Boubacar Traore, an elderly African guitarist he saw perform at last year's Bumbershoot. That Traore doesn't speak English only adds to Frisell's interest. To him, Traore and Dolly Parton represent places where music is a way of life, not confined to what he calls "big-shot musicians" or certain rooms of the house.
Thinking like this has put Frisell in a distinctive place inside the balkanized world of jazz, but after Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "Jazz," he wonders whether he belongs at all. The documentary upset many musicians of the genre for its narrow definition and the short-shrift it gave jazz of the past four decades. It even got the deferential Frisell complaining.
Jazz is not a separate sound or entity, as the documentary made it seem, he says. It's a process, like Charlie Parker transforming what he heard on the radio into something of his own.
The swath of Frisell's search is wider than his CD collection, hundreds of titles filed into sections - Jazz, Rock, Classical, Country, Pop -with artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, The Bobs, Pat Metheny, Arturo Toscanini, Red Cook and Toast, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix.
As he hunted through the collection for alive duet album he did in Europe with Elvis Costello, he began chuckling. "I feel like a hypocrite. Here I criticize people for labeling music and look at how neatly I've organized things."
As eclectic and far-ranging as the influences are, his music has been far more rooted in country, blues, bluegrass and rock the past five years. It's as if he's looped back home to Denver with a suitcase full of sounds he picked up along the trip.
"I used to edit myself," he said. "If something seemed super-simple I had to make it more complicated. Now I'm trying to let what's in there come out and acknowledge where I come from. I'm trying to make it more. ..true."