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Conversations with Himself: Guitarist Bill Frisell on His New Solo Guitar Outing

Photo: Monica Jane Frisell

Maverick jazz guitarist Bill Frisell moved back to New York City and looked deep into his own catalog of tunes for a new solo guitar recording. Our interview.

Music Is
Bill Frisell

Okeh / Sony Masterworks

16 March 2018

Bill Frisell recently moved back to New York, and he has just released a new recording of his songs, played by alone by himself in the studio. It is an interesting moment of reflection for the maverick but mild-mannered guitar hero, and he is exceptionally thoughtful in conversation about the music and homecoming.

"Home" Coming

New York is a home that he adopted in the early 1980s but that, in so many ways, he never really left. He grew up and attended college in Colorado, a landscape that is easy to hear in much of his open, blue-sky music. But attending the Berklee College of Music and that move to New York led him to jazz, a style that he molded as much as he adopted it, and that made him a New York musician, even if he only lived there, properly, for less than a decade.

"As soon as I moved away from New York," Frisell says, "I was always coming back. It always felt like home anyway. I still was spending quite a bit of time here."

In 1988, Frisell moved to Seattle (where a scene fed by keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, who made the same move, was thriving). Frisell's personality, which is famously polite, calm, and sensitive, seemed a match for the Pacific Northwest. "Seattle was a completely different place back then," Frisell notes, likely referring to the Seattle of a pre-Starbucks and pre-dot-com era. "But I was coming to New York so much to play music. That was always a challenge with traveling. It was last spring when I left Seattle and, already, I'm noticing how many fewer planes I've been on."

Now that he has returned, perhaps the great scope of his career and his composing is on his mind. Music Is is just Frisell and his guitars, usually overdubbed in subtle layers of sound, playing both old tunes of his and new compositions, sounding uniquely like himself: haunted and lyrical, pastoral and quirky at the same time. You're perfectly welcome to call it "jazz" because, really, what other label could hold this artful music? But Frisell himself doesn't much bother with the word. "I've never been comfortable with splitting things up into factions or cliques. All that stuff melts away if you just play."

Frisell as a Guitar Player Who Uses All the Options

Music Is not only revisits wonderful Frisell songs from decades ago, but it also gives us the chance to recall why Frisell always mattered—in jazz—as a guitar innovator.

For decades, jazz guitarists followed in the footsteps of Charlie Christian, whose amplified guitar allowed him to play fleet, single-note lines on an instrument that was, previously, too quiet to compete with a jazz rhythm section in a soloist role. Wes Montgomery added some additional technique and his famous octave sound, but the guitarists of these eras tended to be players who might as well have been playing the saxophone: inventing fleet, single-note lines that didn't necessarily use the unique elements of the instrument. There were exceptions, of course, but players like Grant Green, Pat Martino, Sonny Sharrock, and John McLaughlin were still in this tradition. Frisell, whether he was playing acoustic guitar or electric guitar with a bevy of effects options, was strongly attentive to the sounds, textures, and nonlinear possibilities of being a guitar player.

Music Is gives you quick performances like "Think About It" that combine distorted attack, scratched out chords, and phased throb. It's a guitar song. "Rambler", with its bobbing accompaniment through some kind of detuned effect, with a chorused melody statement that rings brightly with a jazz feeling, also is the product of the instrument itself. "Happy Go Lucky" shows off Frisell at his spare best—just him and one lightly amplified, unprocessed guitar. Or there is the finger-picked folk feeling of "Thank You", just a man with his acoustic guitar, then joined by a few gorgeous layers of strumming.

Frisell is keenly aware of himself as a guitar player, not just a musician. He is a man in love with the infinite possibilities of this particular instrument. "Robert Johnson, Segovia, Hendrix, Jim Hall: all those people are playing the same instrument?" he inquires, rhetorically. "That's insane, the variety that can be achieved with those six strings."

He knows that "the effects pedals can help to amplify something that you're hearing in the guitar. What drew me to them first was there was something in my imagination I couldn't quite get from a guitar." But Frisell is equally interested in the range of sounds that are possible from the instrument itself or, put accurately put, from the individual sound that any particular instrument offers him.

"Right now I'm at home and surrounded by guitars in my room. There aren't any pedals out. But what is seducing me is—What does this guitar sound like, what does that guitar sound like? You get fascinated by the instruments themselves, even just two Telecasters that would seem to be very much alike. Until you play them and hear their personalities come out."

On a performance such as the haunting version of "Ron Carter" on Music Is, this idea comes through. Frisell begins with a bass line, fat and slow and resonant, then plays his melody on top in that Telecaster twang he loves. The reverberations are honest — the sounds of the guitars, the room. On the second pass of the melody, he brings in high chordal harmonies on yet another guitar, achieving layers of sound without effects. Similarly, the opening track, "Pretty Stars", keeps it plain and simple, with Frisell playing a repeated pattern on one guitar, then overdubbing an improvisation that morphs into the song's theme, eventually with a third guitar entering. Frisell keeps the effects out of it, but he achieves remarkable timbral variety by play high, low, and mid-range, by playing chordaly and non-chordaly, by using attacks that are picked and thumb-plucked. The variations are subtle and all the more beautiful for it.

Photo: Monica Jane Frisell

Also True Solo Playing

Frisell doesn't overdub everything. On "Winslow Homer" it's just him, all alone for the first, long stretch. What you notice is the dramatic effect of the space he leaves in the performance. "You have to come to feel that you don't have to fill in every little hole," explains Frisell. "Playing solo, that is amplified a thousand times. Someone like Leo Kottke might get some rhythmic momentum going. But the way I play, there is more implication of things that aren't there. You have to get comfortable with things just hanging in the air. You have to will the energy that's coming from the last thing played to continue into the silence somehow."

"Miss You" may be the most dramatic recording here in that sense. It begins out of time, full of space, then Frisell brings in another guitar to create some rhythmic momentum. "The Pioneers" is the purest: the guitarist and one acoustic guitar. He holds your ear not just with a lovely, folk melody but also with sharp shifts in register and tone. "Go Happy Lucky" is a spare, truly solo piece for lightly amplified electric guitar.

"Playing alone — that's always been the biggest challenge for me. From the first time I picked up a guitar, it was my whole way of interacting with people. It was my social life. So, to me, that is so much of what music is about, having that community. I've always had difficulty trying to generate statements alone. Music has always been about being in a band, and it was a long, long time before I tried to play alone.

"My first solo concert was in Boston in the early '80s after I'd been playing guitar for 20 years. I was a professional so-called musician. I tried to do a solo gig in a loft. There were five people in the audience and, I had prepared all this stuff. I was supposed to play for an hour. I played though everything I had prepared and ten minutes had gone by. I was mortified and swore I'd never to do it again."

But here he is, mostly all alone (or, as Bill Evans put it once, in conversations with himself), playing his songs in a way that feels completely natural, even though they can sound so many different ways. Music Is contains two versions of his classic tune "Rambler". The first is angular and eerie, with that strangely processed guitar behind the melody. At the album's end he plays the gorgeous "Made to Shine" like a minor coda to the whole thing, then places another "Rambler" there: pure Frisell, with space, odd parallel harmonies, odd squiggles, sumptuous open chords, moments of folks simplicity.

Photo: Monica Jane Frisell

Choosing What to Play

There are 16 performances on Music Is, most of them hovering in the two-to-three minute range. The ones you know well sit comfortably beside brand new songs. Frisell chose them after a long audition process, live. "My plan for making this recording was NOT to have a plan. I played at The Stone [the storied Lower East Side Manhattan music space that just closed and moved to The New School] for six nights just prior to the recording. Every night I'd go in with music I hadn't played in a long time. I didn't want to play what I knew was going to work. I tried to keep myself on the edge of not knowing what I was doing all week.

"So, going into the studio, I was trying to continue that frame of mind. I had this huge pile of music — new things, things I hadn't played in a long time. One thing led to another. Any overdubs just happened in that moment. We mixed things as we went along. Every song was completely finished before we tried another one. I would play, then we mixed that tune before moving on."

So we get "In Line", the title track from Frisell's first ECM recording from 1982, and it sounds daring and gorgeous here, with bobbing guitars that create a strange, experimental web of sound, over which the melody cascades gently. We also get vintage mid-career Frisell, such as "Monica Jane" from This Land. This is a long performance, over five minutes, and it pulls part the melody as we know it from the original, stretching it out and making it more mysterious. There are also new tunes, such as "Change in the Air", which teases our ears with a guitar pattern that suggests Paul Simon's "Sound of Silence" but then moves off in a distinctly Frisell-ian direction.

On each performance, of course, "Frisell-ian" is the adjective that suggests itself. At this point in his career, Bill Frisell has become a brand unto himself. And here, finally, his aloneness makes it all sound perfect.

"A guitar player is supposed to be able to play something by himself," Frisell says, almost apologetically. "Slowly, slowly over the years, I got more and more okay with it. But it still doesn't come easily, though it's way better now.

"I can finally lose myself in the music."

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