One of the most innovative guitarists of the past 20 years, Bill Frisell has been documented in an astonishing variety of contexts as both a leader and a sideman. An agile player, he can convincingly tackle pedal steel one minute, bebop, then punk-thrash.
He can wax Romantic as effortlessly as he delves into Coplandesque Americana and dives into renegade surf sounds. That kind of flexibility has allowed Frisell into collaborations with artists ranging from Elvis Costello to John Zorn, Marianne Faithfull, Paul Motian, Hal Willner, David Sylvian, and Julius Hemphill among many others. But his own ambitious recordings display the greatest diversity of expression.
From his debut as a leader, 1982's In Line, Frisell's musical vision has proven so idiosyncratic and uncompromising that some critics have dubbed him the Thelonious Monk of guitar. Drawing on the elegant "walking on eggshells" aesthetic of his jazz mentor, Jim Hall, as well as the cathartic abandon of Jimi Hendrix and adding touches of country and avant-garde flourishes, Frisell fashioned a unique guitar vocabulary that set him apart from his colleagues.
His main tools, early on, were a volume pedal (which enabled him to create the effect of breathing through a note as he did on his first instrument, clarinet) and an Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay pedal (which allowed him to loop and manipulate ideas and motifs). Later, Frisell's sensibility became defined more by what he left out than what he put in. Like Monk, he tended to fracture chords, sketch vague contours of melody, make unpredictable stabs at tonal clusters during solos. Rarely did he fall back on the "guitary" habit of using pentatonic scales.
Frisell recently released his first-ever solo outing, Ghost Town, a daring venture that features a healthy dose of over-dubbing along with pure solo improvisation. The stark opening track, "Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa," features nifty banjo work amid a blend of acoustic and electric guitars with textural loopage. The title track is delicate and folksy while "Variations On A Theme" (previously recorded for cartoonist Gary Larson's animated film project, "Tales From The Far Side") plunges into a dark and twisted mood.
In addition to his affecting originals, Frisell also offers refreshing takes on tunes by A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, George & Ira Gershwin, and John McLaughlin. He also turns in a moving banjo rendition of the Edward Heyman-Victor Young romantic classic "When I Fall In Love." We caught up with Frisell in San Francisco where he was mixing his next project: his working quartet augmented by a three-piece horn section.
Guitar.com: Ghost Town sounds like a culmination of things you've been hinting at for a long time. For example, I remember seeing you in the '80s at St. Ann's church in Brooklyn, playing solo with wind-up music boxes. With Ghost Town I feel you are incorporating references and interludes from recordings and performances over the years.
Bill Frisell: Yeah, a little bit. The idea of making a solo record has been in my mind for as long as I've been playing, really. The first time I ever tried to do it was around 1979 or 1980. That first time was probably the most traumatic thing that's ever happened to me. But I kept trying. It's always been something that I felt I had to figure out. Actually, my first record for ECM, In Line, was supposed to be a solo record but I sort of bailed out and got a bass player at the last minute. So the idea has been hanging around. And in some ways it still isn't quite realized. You know, it's me alone in the studio but I guess I'll have to wait another 20 years before I can do just me and one guitar with no over-dubs. I guess on this one I used the studio to trick myself into thinking there's other people there with me.
Guitar.com: Jim Hall mentioned how he had to overcome an initial fear about doing his solo project, Dedications And Inspirations, a few years ago. But he considered it a landmark in his career. Is Ghost Town a landmark for you?
Frisell: It definitely was simmering for a long time and the idea was always kind of dangling out there in front of me. I really went into the studio with no clear idea of what was going to come out. There wasn't any conceptual thing happening other than I just wanted to play by myself. So I just brought a bunch of unfinished tunes I had and in the end I feel like it kind of gives you a pretty broad picture of what I was thinking about at the time, particularly all the different older tunes I hadn't played in a long time.
Guitar.com: What is your personal connection to country classics like "Wildwood Flower" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry?"
Frisell: In the last few years I've been listening a lot more to that kind of music. I think I listened more to Hank Williams in the last two or three years than I did in my whole life. Whereas, for a lot of people, those would be the songs that they grew up playing. But that's not the case with me For me it's kind of new. It's always been in my playing but almost unconsciously. I grew up in Colorado and that music was all around when I was a kid but I always tried to repress it. Lately, though, I've been letting it come out more.
Guitar.com: You actually recorded Ghost Town a year and a half ago. Did that recording overlap with other projects you were working on at the time?
Frisell: Yeah, it was a weird period for me very busy. First, in July of 1998, I did that Burt Bacharach/Elvis Costello arrangement project (The Sweetest Punch). That just dropped out of the sky, and I had to do it. Then in August I did what was my last album, Good Dog, Happy Man (with Jim Keltner, Viktor Krauss, Greg Leisz, Wayne Horvitz, and Ry Cooder). Then in October I did the solo thing. So within about three months I did three records, which is totally crazy. And they were all very different. For the Bacharach project I had to sweat over every note of the arrangement and then for Good Dog, Happy Man we just went in and played. I had tunes but I really didn't figure out anything in advance, in terms of arrangements. And then by the time I did the solo thing I didn't want to deal with anything at all so it was completely not prepared.
Guitar.com: A case of spontaneous composition?
Frisell: Totally. I did three or four solo gigs to prepare for the recording, and I thought, "Oh, that'll be great. I'll do these gigs and kind of get comfortable playing by myself, then go in the studio." But I'm not sure if it did more harm than good. I did get comfortable, but there's always this weird transition from playing live to being in the studio. You get very self-conscious of the process in the studio, and playing solo sort of magnified it about a thousand times. Playing a gig I would sort of go for it and move around on stage or whatever, not thinking about anything. Then I get in the studio and I move one inch to the left and my shirt makes a noise on the guitar. It's like hyper-sensitive. Suddenly you're under this microscope, and that's part of the fear you have to overcome in doing this sort of solo project. I mean, the first day in there I was just paralyzed. I don't think I got anything recorded at all.
Guitar.com: Obviously you broke through that barrier and got it together. Did you surprise yourself with some of the things that came out?
Frisell: Maybe a little bit. There's a few things that I was happy with that just happened completely spontaneously. I don't think I could ever re-create them, they just happened because I was there. There's one thing, "Honor And Justice," which is sort of in two parts. The whole second half is just a repetitive thing but I kind of like it. I put maybe three or four guitars and it made this interlocking thing that's kinda cool. There's another piece, "What A World," which has these tiny little fragments of written stuff that I started with bits of written music and big spaces in-between. And I was happy with the way things sort of grew on their own out of these little bits of material and turned into something much bigger.
Guitar.com: You do a nice interpretation of Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now." Didn't you record that before with pianist Fred Hersch?
Frisell: No. That's one of those songs I've been playing forever but never recorded. The first record I ever heard Jim Hall on was Intermodulation with Bill Evans, and they play that song. That was 1969 -- something like that. So I guess I've been trying to play it for like 30 years. Same thing with "Follow Your Heart." It's another song I heard around that same time, when I first started to hear jazz. Those have been things I keep coming back to over the years but I've never recorded either one of them.
Guitar.com: You've been touring with a quartet?
Frisell: Yeah, it's a group I've been playing with a lot, with Greg Leisz on slide guitar, Kenny Wollesen on drums, and David Piltch on bass. The next recording is them with a horn section: Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ron Miles on trumpet, and Billy Drewes on saxophone. We did a European tour last spring, which was the first real big batch of work that we did. So it's about a year that this quartet has been playing together. And then sometimes I've been lucky to have Brian Blade fill in for Kenny on drums and Viktor Krauss has done some of the gigs. It's been a really great bunch of people.
Guitar.com: What's coming up for you?
Frisell: I'm scared to even say this -- I feel like I'm going to jinx it if I talk about it but I'm supposed to do a record with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland. I'm kind of freaking out now just thinking about it It's one of those things where I'll believe it when it's done. But Michael Shrieve [former Santana drummer and recent Frisell collaborator], he's known Elvin for like 40 years, since he was a little kid. He's writing a book on Elvin. Somehow he got it in his mind that I should play with Elvin. Next thing I know, this thing is actually happening.
Guitar.com: What kind of aesthetic are you thinking of, guitar-wise, for that project?
Frisell: We have two days to do it and no rehearsal time so it's just gonna be like, "Bam, we gotta just play." So I wanna make sure the music is really loose so we don't have to be struggling with figuring out what to do.
Guitar.com: Bring your RAT pedal.
Frisell: Yeah, hopefully we'll just kind of blast off. I'm sure it'll be cool. I'm so excited to play with Elvin. I'm scared too.
Guitar.com: That's gonna be exciting. That's cool that you get an opportunity to express all these different facets of your musical makeup.
Frisell: Yeah, I can't even believe it half the time. I keep feeling like I'm some kind of weird dream or something. I'm lucky.
You can visit with Bill at his website: Bill Frisell.com