Bill Frisell, jazz guitarist: Something Else! Interview

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We might be tempted to take for granted quietly impactful triumphs like guitarist Bill Frisell’s forthcoming All We Are Saying, an Americana-infused tribute to John Lennon. After all, the prolific Frisell has made a career of deftly combining the distortion and verve of modern rock, the raw emotion of backwoods roots music and the sophisticated harmonics of jazz.

But we shouldn’t. Not because of our familiarity with the subject matter, not because of the furious pace at which Frisell issues albums and certainly not because we’ve grown too accustomed to his particular brand of form-shifting musical genius.

[GIMME FIVE: Bill Frisell discusses his John Lennon tribute recording ‘All We Are Saying,’ as well as key moments from ‘Nashville’ and ‘Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian,’ among others.]

With All We Are Saying, Frisell has once again burrowed underneath the textures that make his work so identifiable to find a heartfelt place. He gets there — in an almost organically off-handed way, it turns out — by extrapolating on a series of musical shapes found inside the original tunes. Some of these successes can be credited to his continued experiments in blending instruments, something showcased here by the presence of cinematic violinist Jenny Scheinman. But, more often, it’s the result of Frisell’s restless, wide-angle imagination. Together, they give the new project this thrillingly un-reverential atmosphere, yet Frisell and Co. never let go of the music’s emotional center.

Bill Frisell joined us this week for the latest Something Else! Sitdown to talk about his new John Lennon project, due Sept. 27 on Savoy Jazz/429 Records, as well as notable career moments — and how to craft a signature sound out of what you can’t do on an instrument …

Nick DeRiso: In a way, it seems like the music of John Lennon — cloudy, emotional, then sharp edged and confrontational — was always the perfect template for your particular style of guitar. Did it feel as hand-in-glove as it sounded?
Bill Frisell: Definitely. A lot of things happened during that recording, things I didn’t know were going to happen. That music, the Beatles stuff, has been part of all of our lives — and it was the very beginning of what got me super-fired up about playing music. It was such a part of my DNA. In a way, I feel like I didn’t prepare for this recording at all. Normally, I would be thinking about the songs, writing things out or planning things – just thinking about arrangements or rehearsing with the band. For this record, I didn’t prepare in that way. We all had been preparing our whole lives, by having this music going in and out of us all the time. It was a different way of going about it. We just started playing.

DeRiso: Explain the early construction of your sound on the guitar. In many ways, it felt like you arrived at ECM in the early 1980s with a fully formed perspective.
Frisell: I’m always taking these tiny steps at a time, so I don’t even know it. Besides, I think everybody has their own sound. Everybody has a different speaking voice, and if everybody played an instrument, I think we’d all sound different, too. My own awareness of having my own sound didn’t happen until people kept telling me I had I am own sound. (Laughs.) I think your sound comes more from your limitations — what I am hearing in my head, versus what I’m playing. During that struggle of trying to imply what I’m hearing, somewhere in there — that’s where our own personal sound comes from. If I could play like Andres Segovia, I would just play like that. But I’m hearing Segovia in my head, and I am struggling to get it out somehow, and I do whatever I can to get my version of that out, then it somehow comes out as my own sound. As far as being fully formed, I don’t feel close to that even now. Every day I wake up, and there’s my guitar and all this music, and in that way it feels the same as the very first time I sat down to play. There is an infinite thing out in front of me and it always feels like it’s at the very beginning. It’s an amazing, beautiful world to be in. It never ends — and you can never figure it out.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Get a sneak peek into Bill Frisell’s ‘All You Are Saying,’ a tribute recording featuring solo and Beatles songs by John Lennon.]

DeRiso: A move from New York City to Washington state in the late 1980s apparently sparked an interest in Americana music. Take us deeper into that impulse. Did you grow up around roots music, or was it something that sparked for you later in life?
Frisell: It was always there; I guess maybe it just became more obvious. But I think it was always a part of what I was doing all along. I guess when I went to Nashville and recorded that album (in 1997), maybe that was a really clear point visually. But what had been going in my mind, that had been there all along. I guess (Nashville, his ninth recording) made it more obvious. I had been performing with the first real working band that I had, with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. Up to that point, that was pretty much the music that I was putting out there, and it was like a comfort area with those guys. When I went to Nashville, it was one of the first times where I went outside of that zone, to play with different people. It was almost like they spoke a different language. In that way, it was breaking out of the area I was comfortable in. Playing with a lot of different people really fired my imagination. That was the first time I had played with a banjo player or a mandolin. I had to figure out what was going on!

DeRiso: On recordings like 2003’s The Intercontinentals, you seemed to be asking your listeners to hear both the busyness and the beauty in music. This album is a great example of how songs, and your focus on them, can help people move into unfamiliar sounds without losing their way. It’s complicated, yet tuneful.
Frisell: A lot of the music I play is so much about the people I’m playing with. As with the Lennon thing, the band that was playing has a lot to do with what happens in the music. That’s what I am relying on all the time. When I did The Intercontinentals, there were these people from all over the place — from Africa and Greece and Brazil — and they were guys I knew and had been wanting to play with. But the way it started was very haphazard. There was concert and festival in Seattle and I thought I would stick all of these guys in one thing and see what happens — sort of like a chemical experiment. That’s how it started; it was more playing with people who at the beginning I didn’t have a close relationship with. For instance, I ran into Christos (Govetas), who lives in Seattle, and he was trying out an oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument used by North African and Middle Eastern musicians) and I said: ‘We should try to play together some time.’ It was more like these are just people I wanted to play with. I had no idea if it would work together or not.

DeRiso: The Grammy-winning Unspeakable, on the other hand, was one of the more challenging recordings from that era — and something that recalls your early New York City days of experimentation with noise. How does that outside sound fit into the broader dynamic of your playing?
Frisell: So many things in music, you look at it later and you think — that’s what that meant, or you put names to it. When I’m in the midst of playing the music, I’m not thinking that way. All of those things, like the style or whether it’s noisy and pretty or loud or soft, dissonant or consonant — whatever it is — all of that stuff is just there all the time. It’s available all the time. Whatever’s happening around me, that’s what causes these things to come out. Only later, after the music gets played, can you say: ‘Oh, yeah, that was a noisy thing.’ I don’t set out to do it; it doesn’t work that way for me, to ever decide beforehand what it is. All of those things have become part of my vocabulary.

DeRiso: You’ve described yourself as a deliberate person, yet you are one of the most prolific — and varied — performers in jazz today. How do you keep such a sharp focus on the work? Stay away from social media and TV?
Frisell: (Laughs) It’s the music. I just can’t help it. As soon as you enter into music in any way, it takes you to the next thing. There is always something there that I want to try and grab onto. I never have to figure that out. I don’t calculate what I’m going to do next. I don’t have some master plan. You just wake up today and think: ‘I want to try this.’ It takes care of itself. I’ve been so lucky to have all of these people around me to play with, and to have all of these gigs. I know it’s a rare thing, that I am able to make all of these recordings. I don’t take that for granted. I definitely had some years there were it wasn’t happening that way. But as far as the music, there is always something to do.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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