The Music Keeps Going

Bill Frisell ’78 has followed a musically agnostic path that threads through jazz, pop, folk, country, avant-garde, and other styles.
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When he left Berklee in 1978, guitarist and composer Bill Frisell embarked on a career that has defied categorization and far exceeded his expectations. For 40 years, he has performed around the world with his own groups and as a sideman with such jazz mainstays as Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd, Elvin Jones, Paul Bley, Chick Corea, John Zorn, Fred Hersch, and many more. He has also worked with musicians from a range of musical styles including Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Bono, Ginger Baker, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Suzanne Vega, and countless others. Frisell has played on more than 250 albums and released 40 as a leader, including Unspeakable, which won him a Grammy in 2005 in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category.

After earning his diploma at Berklee, Frisell performed around Europe with Berklee friends: bassist Kermit Driscoll ’78, Belgian saxophonist Stephan Houben ’77, and drummer Vinnie Johnson ’75. While living in Belgium, he received a call from his former Berklee teacher Mike Gibbs ’63, to fill the guitar chair for Gibbs’s tour of England. It was a pivotal moment in Frisell’s life as he made connections that bore fruit almost immediately. German bassist Eberhard Weber was also part of the tour and later invited Frisell to play on his 1978 album Fluid Rustle for the ECM label. At the sessions, Frisell was introduced to ECM producer and label chief Manfred Eicher, which led to recordings with other top ECM artists and Frisell’s debut recording, In Line, plus two more albums for the label.

Anything but Predictable

As Frisell emerged on the scene, popular jazz and fusion groups with fiery guitar virtuosi were en vogue. Think John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, Al DiMeola ’74, Allan Holdsworth, Steve Morse, and Frank Gambale. By contrast, Frisell pursued his own direction with a style that was often meditative and at other times a blend of avant-garde and psychedelic; always melodic, never chops-oriented. On a recommendation from Pat Metheny, iconic jazz drummer Paul Motian called Frisell in 1981 to round out his bassless trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano ’72. It was a significant break that boosted Frisell’s profile in American jazz. Frisell relocated from Belgium to Hoboken, NJ, to be close to New York. In addition to his work with Motian, Frisell formed his own group that further explored unusual instrumentation with cellist Hank Roberts, drummer Joey Baron, and bassist Kermit Driscoll. The group quickly garnered acclaim in the New York jazz scene.

In 1988, Frisell moved from New Jersey to Seattle, WA, and continued touring with his own groups and as a sideman. He signed that year with the Nonesuch label, beginning a 20-year relationship that yielded 21 albums that were anything but predictable. In his Nonesuch catalog, Frisell explored his own musical path, which included his scores for Buster Keaton silent films, ensembles with unique instrumental combinations such as his group with Ron Miles (trumpet), Eyvind Kang (violin, tuba), and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) heard on the album Quartet.

In a recent phone conversation, Frisell spoke about his proclivity for offbeat instrumentation. “A lot of times I’m thinking more about the players themselves rather than the instruments,” he related. “I think about the personalities of the people and how their minds would mix together. You want to have people you can talk with. But I can’t say that I’m not thinking about the instruments too.”

While improvisation is always the backbone of Frisell’s music, he has continually delved into non-jazz territory. Struggling to categorize the results, critics have described his work as “post-bop jazz” and “Americana” to describe his work. The Americana label was absolutely appropriate for the critically hailed 1992 album Have a Little Faith. On it, Frisell covered music by such diverse writers as John Hiatt, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Muddy Waters, John Philip Sousa, and others. Frisell’s thumbprint guitar stylings unified the unlikely program with backing from Driscoll, Baron, Don Byron (clarinet), and Guy Klucevsek (accordion).

Frisell plowed another field with his 1997 album Nashville. It featured the guitarist in the company of top Nashville studio musicians Viktor Krauss (bass), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Ron Block (banjo), Adam Steffey (mandolin), as well as cameo appearances by Robin Holcomb (vocals) and Pat Bergeson (harmonica). The mix of Frisell’s jazz-folk originals, bluegrass covers, and pop songs by Neil Young and Skeeter Davis drew listeners from across the music spectrum.

The Big-Tent Approach

Frisell takes a big-tent approach to music and seems oblivious to style boundaries. “This was going on before it was evident on the surface,” he said. “I was in high school when I discovered jazz. I spent a few years shutting out everything else that had led me to that point—the Beatles, the Ventures, and other pop music I’d been listening to. I had this period when I just wanted to be a jazz guy. But it was through jazz that I realized what my heroes like Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis were doing. They were taking their life experience with music and putting it all out there. I figured out that I should be open to the whole picture and be honest about where I came from. So I have wanted to include anything that I loved and have it come out in my music.”

The goal of any creative musician is to find his or her personal voice. Generally, a large part of an identifiable style is attributable to the artist’s touch on the instrument. In large measure, Frisell’s sound comes from his gentle right-hand attack and slow left-hand vibrato on the strings, his use of open strings and harmonics, as well as a predominantly a crystalline guitar tone. His use of digital reverb, delay, and looping devices add significantly to his identity as does his deployment of distortion pedals, ring modulators, and other signal processors. He turns to effects to augment the natural voice of the guitar.

“It may come from hearing the tone of a saxophone or feeling jealous that a pianist can hold down the sustain pedal and everything will ring,” he says. “Having a delay pedal can be similar to having a sustain pedal on the piano. Using a fuzz tone or distortion can get you closer to the sound of a saxophone. That’s what leads me to effects. At other times, I just want to experiment to see what sounds come out of some pedal. I like to be surprised, it’s inspirational when you surprise yourself, and effects can help you do that.”

There are many purely musical elements that identify Frisell’s style. One area is how he plays a melody, frequently punctuating phrases with a major or minor second under key notes. His reverence for melody is especially evident in his covers of well-known songs. “The melody is king,” he says. “It tells you everything you need to know. In any tune—my own, a standard, or a folk song—it’s important to me to keep the melody going. No matter how far away from it I get, I still want to know where it is. It’s not about playing the melody once and then playing all this other stuff that you figured out. The melody has to be the backbone. I’m reading a Thelonious Monk biography, and this [topic] keeps coming up. What I love about his music is that no matter how abstract or complicated it got, you could always hear the melody in what he played.”

Schooled in Breaking the Rules

Frisell’s harmonic vocabulary encompasses the jazz language as well as the diatonic sounds of pop tunes and strictly triadic harmonies of folk and country music. He has also developed an uncanny ability to make virtually any note work against any chord. “I could play a G chord and as I sit there and listen, it starts suggesting other notes,” he says. “You add up the experience of playing for more than 50 years, and you find that your ear leads you to more possibilities. It’s when you go deep into a song that this stuff starts happening. It could be a simple song with I, IV, V triads, but as you get deeper, you can be led to other places. When I was at Berklee, I was so lucky to study with Herb Pomeroy. In class we would discuss the basic harmony of a tune, and then he would talk about adding one wrong note to a chord or harmonizing a melody with a parallel line that was in another key. All of that is way back in my subconscious and comes out in my guitar playing. Herb really opened up those windows for me by showing us how to break the rules.”

Music IS, Frisell’s most recent album, is a solo project for which he culled his own compositions spanning his entire recorded oeuvre, and wrote five new tunes. The recording’s 16 tracks include solo-guitar renditions as well as pieces built upon loops and others with overdubbed electric and acoustic guitars, bass, ukulele, and music boxes. Revisiting vintage material gave Frisell the opportunity to search for sounds previously undiscovered.

“I hadn’t played some of the older tunes since I first recorded them,” he says. “’In Line’ was on the first album I did under my own name 35 years ago. I recorded it and then never played it again. One thing about getting older is that it’s very interesting to look at what you did and not even recognize what it is anymore. You see the music through a completely different lens. I will find new possibilities in a tune that I never knew were there.”

For Frisell, the joy of music making is in taking chances. “It’s like being able to jump off a cliff, but in music you don’t get hurt,” he says with a smile in his voice. “The most wonderful moments for me are when I take a risk and find something new. I try to stay in that place as much as I can.”

“Nothing Is Finished”

Music is ever-evolving for Frisell, even after he commits it to record. “Nothing is finished to me at all,” he says. “Something might feel finished, but if I look at it again, it could suggest something else. Recording freezes things in a moment and they have to seem finished. You have to think that it’s as good as you can get it right now and let it be finished. The reality is that the music keeps going. I’ve been lucky to do all these recordings. When I finish one—even if it doesn’t feel finished to me—I know I’ll be able to do another one.”

Frisell is awestruck by the reception of his music. “I remember taking a class on the music business at Berklee where Gary Burton was talking about the music business and publishing. I was thinking, ‘I don’t need to learn this stuff because I’ll never have to deal with it.’ It was beyond my wildest dreams then that I would ever make a record. So I don’t take all that has happened for me for granted. I realize now that I am beyond lucky to have been able to keep doing this and making some kind of a living at it.”