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Bill Frisell is an American guitarist and composer. One of the leading guitarists in jazz since the late '80s, Frisell's eclectic music touches on progressive folk, classical music, country music, noise[…]

A conversation with the jazz guitarist.

Question: What were some of your early musical influences? 

Bill Frisell: Nobody else in my family was a musician, but my parents loved music, my grandparents loved music. It was always around a little bit in my family... we had a record player. But I think just growing up during that time in the ‘50s, as rock 'n' roll was starting to happen, I just sort of followed along with whatever was popular at the time. Very, very early on, I think I was four years old, or five years old when we first got a television, and I would watch the "Mickey Mouse Club" in the afternoon, and the leader of the Mouseketeers was this guy named Jimmy and he would play a guitar and I just thought that was really cool. At that time I made myself a pretend guitar out of a piece of cardboard and rubber bands and somehow I just stuck with that my whole life. You know. 

Question: What was your music education like? 

Bill Frisell: Well, when I was in fourth grade, they would come around in the public schools and ask if anyone wanted to play an instrument, and at that time my father thought clarinet would be a good instrument. So, I started in the school music program playing clarinet, and then I got into this marching band and... looking back on it, this fantastic teacher that led the marching band. And I also studied private with him. He was very strict, almost military kind of process I went through. I had to practice every day, and tap my foot in the right place, and you know, at the time it was kind of harsh almost. 

I remember one time I was even crying at the end of one of the lessons because I couldn’t do what he wanted me to do. But he just kept on me and somehow I look back on that as being just so much of the basis for what I do came from that. 

Question: What made you switch to guitar? 

Bill Frisell: A friend of mine across the street had a guitar. There were guitars around at my friends' houses, and there was a friend of mine that lived across the street that was a little bit older than me that was... I really looked up to this guy. He was kind of my hero from when I was maybe five years old. You know, I’d be in kindergarten and he’d be in second grade. So, anyway, he was the first one to get a real guitar and then he started playing in a band and I would go sneaking around his house and looking in his window while they were practicing, and I just thought it was so cool. Then I’d get to play his guitar maybe a little bit, or another friend had a guitar and I’d sort of mess around with it. I must have been maybe 12 or 13, my parents got me just a $20 cheap guitar for Christmas. 

And I guess the point that I think where it really began was: I think I was 14 and I saved up money and bought an electric guitar. And I remember the day I told my mother I wanted to see all this stuff in the ‘50’s, like hot rods and surfing and even though I lived in Colorado, I would by surf magazines and dinosaurs and outer space. I really was into hot rods and I wanted to be a race car driver, and I had a lawn mower engine that I would take apart and I had big plans to make some sort of racing car. And then one day I thought, man, I think I want to get a guitar instead of having this racing car. And I remember really clearly one day coming home after school when I had made this decision and told my mother... I remember seeing her in the alleyway behind our house and I said, “Mommy, I decided I don't want to be a race car driver, I want to get an electric guitar.” And she said, "Oh this is wonderful!" She was so excited and relieved that I didn’t want to be a race car driver.

So anyway, then I saved up my money and I got an electric guitar and at that time if you owned the instrument then you were automatically in a band. You didn’t really have to play. My friend got an electric guitar and then within a couple of weeks, we were playing at parties on weekends. And it’s still kind of like that, that’s my social... The music has been my whole social life. 

Question: Describe a little about what music means to you. 

Bill Frisell: It’s a world where anything is possible and just whatever is in your imagination can happen and so... I mean, there’s ways of expressing. I think it’s a healthier way of getting things out rather than punching somebody in the face, or something. I can play it on my guitar and it doesn’t hurt anybody. You can say what you need to say and I can see nothing but good comes from music. For me it’s just been a way. Like now, as I’m struggling to find words to express myself. When I play music I feel like that’s where my real voice is, or that’s where I really say something more than with words. I mean, words are cool too, but I’m not that good with them. 

Question: How do you use silence in your music? 

Bill Frisell: I think there’s a natural way I have of speaking. I hesitate and I think it takes me a while to get the thoughts formed in my mind and to get them to come out. And the same thing happens when I’m playing music. I’m thinking and I’ll hesitate, so there’s a natural rhythm that I have that happens when I play. But then also, the silence is as important. There’s dark and light and you can’t see one or the other if you know they cancel each other out, so I mean... if there’s sound, there has to be no sound to go with it before it will mean anything. 

Question: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? 

Bill Frisell: I guess I don’t really think so much about what it is called, although it’s just music, or but there was a time when I shied away from calling myself a jazz musician, or maybe it was because I don’t like to be boxed in, somehow. When I started to find out about jazz music, that was a place where anything was possible. The people that I listened to... when I started to hear Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, there was something that those guys were doing that it seemed to include – it wasn’t exclusive. I don’t think they were thinking about the name. You know, Duke Ellington. There was something in their music that it wasn’t exclusive, it included everything that they knew, all of their experience and in that way I still think of myself as a jazz... It’s that I take what I know and where I’ve been and just try to make something out of it and that’s what I think Jazz to me means. So, I don’t mind being called a jazz musician. 

Question: How much of your music improvised versus composed? 

Bill Frisell: I’m not sure it's improvisation and composition. It’s harder to separate the two. Sometimes I used to say that when I would write music, it’s sort of a slowed down version of when I improvise or something. You have more time to be critical or block yourself. And when you’re improvising, you just have to deal with the moment, but I think the two things are getting closer together where when I’m writing music on paper, I’m able to maybe not judge it so much in the moment and just let it come out. And then at the same time when I am improvising spontaneously I’m getting closer to having it be maybe the structure of it be more solid or something. I don’t know. 

I mean, even if I play the same notes, there are so many things that are happening with the people I’m with... playing and the sound in the room and the audience and the temperature and whatever other noises that are going on, or what happened that day or there’s no way you can play the same thing twice, even if you’re trying to. I mean, I’m trying to actually not play it the same way twice I guess. But, so I mean in that way, even playing in a set piece for me, it doesn’t feel that much different from something that’s improvised. 

Question: What is your method of composing? 

Bill Frisell: It used to be it seemed like it would be easier for me to do it when I was traveling, or anywhere I would just write stuff down. But now I need more solitary, concentrated time and I’ll write a lot. I actually had a little bit of time off recently where I wrote music every day. I didn’t have any deadline or it wasn’t for any other reason other than just doing it. And then I was able to get into a real rhythm... It’s almost like an, I don’t know what. See, for me it works best if I don’t judge what I’m doing as I’m doing it. Every time I start to think about what it actually is, then I become too critical and it just stops the process. I get into the energy of it and the stuff just comes out and pages and pages of this stuff. I filled up a few notebooks with music over a few weeks recently. Then I go back and I start looking at it more critically and sometimes there’s fully formed things there or there’s just germs of things that can become something bigger. I’ve been just so lucky or so fortunate with the people that I play with over the last, I don’t know, well since I started trying to do my own music. I feel really lucky that I’ve been around people who have backed up or encouraged me, and so much of what I write, so much of it comes from the people I’m with. When I bring them a melody and they put stuff into it that I could never... You can’t really write it down. 

So with the different groups I have, I usually present them with some kind of structure, like maybe it’s just one melody or maybe it’s like more fully formed four-part thing, or something. But there’s a point where I just leave it up to them to do with it what they want. And that’s really exciting for me. It’s not just like writing music and bringing it to some anonymous people and have them play exactly what’s there. There’s more going on than that. 

Question: How does your interest in electronics influence your music? 

Bill Frisell: When I started listening to Miles Davis playing the trumpet, or Bill Evans playing the piano, I’d hear the piano and I’d think, "Oh they can play notes in one hand and the notes just ring out and then they can play other notes," and so that led me to get a delay pedal so I could play something and then the notes would keep going and then I could play some other stuff. I mean that came really from thinking about piano. Or, even a distortion. I remember I was hearing Miles Davis playing a trumpet, and then I heard Carlos Santana playing the guitar and... he was pushing the amp way past what was the normal. I mean he was really getting this distorted long... Or Jimi Hendrix did that. But then I started to hear, "Wait a minute, that’s kind of like the trumpet," so then I got a distortion thing. 

So I mean, it kind of came almost more from trying to mimic these other instruments than... although I did, you know, of course I listened to Jimi Hendrix and I listened to Santana too. But a lot of that stuff, it’s just something I’m trying to realize that I’m hearing in my head. 

Question: What recordings are essential to a crash course in jazz? 

Bill Frisell: Oh, there’s so many. That’s the thing. It’s incredible how much music there is, you know? If you just follow one person, it’ll lead you to... like it’s all connected somehow. I was in high school and my band director gave me a Wes Montgomery album; he wanted me to learn this piece on the guitar for a talent show. And so he gave me this Wes Montgomery record and that was a beginning for me of becoming aware of that music. And it was Wes Montgomery with Ron Carter playing bass, right? Recently I’ve been blessed to be able to play with him; I can’t believe I get to play with some of these people. 

But, so there’s this first record that I really listened to that’s a jazz record and there’s Ron Carter’s playing bass. So then I go, "Well I’m gonna get another jazz record." So I get a Kenny Burrell record and there’s... Ron Carter’s playing bass on that one. And then I get a Miles Davis record and Ron Carter’s playing bass on that one. Then Ron plays with Miles Davis and Miles Davis played with John Coltrane and then John Coltrane played with Duke Ellington, and Duke Ellington played with Louis Armstrong. I don’t know what to tell somebody. If you just start... just listen to anything great. Listen to Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, any of those guys. It’s easy to find out who they are... they’ll all lead you off into all these unbelievable... it’s more than a tree, it’s like a forest of all the seeds coming down from this giant tree and it’s amazing. 

Question: How is jazz changing as today’s music students come to it through the academy? 

Bill Frisell: When I was starting to play, I think in Boston, Berklee was one of the very few places where you could actually, I’m not even sure you could major in guitar. It’s like, well you know... yeah you can play the guitar, but you have to play a real instrument if you’re going to get a degree or something. And I played clarinet in college. When I first went to college, I majored in clarinet because they wouldn’t let me major in guitar. And all that’s changed. There was North Texas State and Berklee and a couple of places that had these jazz programs. And that’s definitely changed. And there’s so much available... so much music you can get in books and it’s all around. My generation, I still had to learn by going, you know, I’d go to clubs and older guys would let me play and a lot of it happened outside of school. And I’m thankful that I was able to learn in a bar or something, that’s where you learned how to play. But that doesn’t seem to happen. I guess it's still there, but... And I’m glad that all of this stuff is available, but I think you can’t just go one way, you have to try to get as much as you can get from as many different directions. I think the danger is just to go into a school and stay within that... I mean there’s a lot in there, you could spend your life just right in there, but there’s a lot of other stuff outside of there and I think the danger is just staying... closing off whatever other ways there are to learn about stuff. 

Like the thing about... you go to a college and then end up teaching at the college and then this sort of incestuous thing starts happening and I’m not sure how healthy that is. I think there’s laws against that. 

Question: Who are some young musicians today that you admire? 

Bill Frisell: I just recently have gotten to play with Jason Moran, a piano player. He’s not that young... But he’s someone within the last few years that I heard something in his music that I hadn’t heard for a long time that goes way, way back. Way, way deep, into some place way far back and every once in a while I get afraid that these things are getting lost sometimes. And I heard him and I was like, "Oh okay, we’re safe." I love his music so much and to get to play with him was really great, recently. 

I heard another piano player from New Orleans, Jonathan Batiste.  He’s young and his band was young. Some of the guys in the band were not even 20 years old yet. I just heard them a few months ago. And I heard something in that music that, again, it was this emotional heart.... He’s a fantastic technical player, but what was getting me was he was tapped into this emotional thing that gets me going when I listen to music and he was working with that. And that really gives me hope... there’s no way we’re ever going to kill music. There’s always going to be somebody that’s going to get it. 

Recorded on May 5, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown