Guitar legend Bill Frisell’s diverse songbook defies his jazz label

[29 January 2008]

By Thor Christensen

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

Bill Frisell speaks slowly and calmly, like the Mr. Rogers of jazz. But all is not mellow in Mr. Frisell’s Neighborhood.

Just like his mercurial guitar playing, there’s a tough side under the easygoing exterior.

“Everyone sees Bill as the nicest guy in the world, and he’s actually one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met,” says pianist Wayne Horvitz, a longtime collaborator.

“He really is stubborn as a mule, and I mean that as a compliment.”

The Seattle-based guitarist laughs when he hears the quote, partly because he knows it’s true.

“It’s hard to explain,” Frisell says, “but I’m the only one who knows what I’m trying to do, and sometimes I need to go off on tangents to figure out something.”

Frisell skips off on tangents like most people flip through TV stations with the remote.

Over the course of 25 albums, he’s played everything from folk ballads to avant-garde jazz and covered songs as diverse as Madonna’s “Live to Tell” and John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March.” He’s guest-starred on more than 200 albums, appearing with everyone from Norah Jones to William S. Burroughs.

The London Independent called him “perhaps the most important jazz musician of his generation.” At the very least, he’s one of the most daring. The only limit seems to be what’s inside his brain.

“For me, the guitar’s like a miniature orchestra,” he says by phone before a concert in San Francisco.

“I mimic whatever’s in my imagination: a Beethoven symphony, or the sound of a frog in a pond, or a truck crashing.”

In concert, he’s even more unpredictable. Performing his first Dallas show in 15 years in June at the Dallas Museum of Art, he hopscotched from Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to “Moon River” to West African trance music.

“We never know where we’re going,” Frisell says. “We just get into this stream of consciousness, and when the show’s over I have no idea what songs we just played.”

He was born in Baltimore in 1951 and grew up in Denver playing along with LPs by the Stones, the Yardbirds and B.B. King. In high school, Frisell played in R&B-dance bands with future members of Earth, Wind & Fire.

The better he got, the more he avoided the showoff style of guitar gymnastics that flourished in the late `60s.

“He has plenty of chops, but he’s very comfortable in not using those chops to impress,” says University of North Texas jazz professor Fred Hamilton, a bandmate of Frisell when both attended the University of Northern Colorado. “His music is really honest. There’s no sense of ego. It just sounds like someone singing through the guitar.”

But as honest as he is, he wasn’t always open-minded. After falling in love with jazz in the `70s, he refused to listen to anything except Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and other pure jazz artists.

“Jazz opened the floodgates to this new world, and I wanted to stay in there for the rest of my life,” he says.

“But after a couple years I woke up and thought, `Wait a minute. I’m shutting off all the music that led me to that point.’”

In the `80s, Frisell moved to New York and teamed with John Zorn, the genre-blurring sax player who swirls together jazz, punk and cartoon music. Before long, Frisell was blending styles in his own songs and coming up with a distinct guitar sound.

“His guitar playing is so unique that the moment you hear it, you instantly know it’s him,” says Horvitz. “He’s got a specific touch, a specific feel that nobody else can imitate.”

Describing that feel isn’t easy. Sometimes he plays with the coolness of a bebop master, but other times his guitar explodes in fits of rage and laughter. He’ll use electronic effects to sound as though he’s playing guitar underwater, but he’s just as at home playing a stark melody on an acoustic guitar.

Most jazz fans love his anything-goes approach. But some purists scoffed when he dove headfirst into country and bluegrass on 1997’s “Nashville” (recorded with Alison Krauss’ band, Union Station) and 2002’s “The Willies” (featuring ex-Bad Livers banjoist Danny Barnes).

“Some people said, `Oh, he’s selling out. He’s trying to make a bunch of money by playing simple music.’ To me, that seemed ridiculous,” he says. “It was one of the most risky, scary things I could do: to play with people I’ve never played with and try to relate to music I didn’t know if I’d be able to.”

The sellout accusations reminded him that country still carries a stigma in some circles, especially in the jazz world. The guitarist calls it “musical apartheid.”

“Country, blues, whatever, they all came from the same place,” he says. “When you’re in the midst of playing the music, you’re not thinking about what it’s labeled.”

Frisell moved to Seattle in 1989, where he lives with his wife, artist Carole d’Inverno. But he often travels to New York and Los Angeles for recording sessions: In addition to his own albums, he’s played on records by everyone from Paul Simon to Bono to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Musically, Frisell is the man of a thousand voices. But for some reason, most people still label him a jazz musician. His sole Grammy, for 2005’s “Unspeakable,” came in the contemporary jazz category.

But that’s fine by him. After all, the jazz label puts him in good company. “I’m not comparing myself with them, but Charlie Parker used popular songs and Sonny Rollins played cowboy songs or whatever else floated through his mind. That’s what I feel like I’m doing - using jazz to take whatever’s around me and transform it into my own voice,” he says.

“To me, jazz is a place where anything is possible.”

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