Bill Frisell: New Ideas in Old Songs

Of the celebrated triumvirate of John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Bill Frisell—the most original and influential jazz guitarists of the past 50 years—none is more distinctive, or self-effacing, than Frisell, a true changeling of the guitar. Frisell is a jazz-based musician, but his music crisscrosses genres, and his guitar playing isn't bound to or limited by a specific technique. He's a master illusionist, able to alter a song's meaning far beyond its original intent with the aid of a Telecaster guitar, a modest effects chain, and, most importantly, his rich imagination. In concert—as I heard at a 2014 Lincoln Center performance with singer-guitarist-songwriter Buddy Miller and vocalist-fiddler Carrie Rodriguez—Frisell creates virtual worlds in which his audience experiences interstellar vistas, country music–flecked nostalgia, and Hendrix-caliber experimentation.

Highlights of Frisell's discography, which began with his 1983 ECM debut, In Line, include the 2005 Grammy Award–winning album Unspeakable (Elektra Nonesuch); the landmark sessions for bassist Marc Johnson's Bass Desires (ECM) and Second Sight (ECM); and his work with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer-leader Paul Motian, including One Time Out (Soul Note), On Broadway Volumes 1 and 2 (JMT), I Have the Room Above Her (ECM), and Time and Time Again (ECM).

Frisell's current release, Harmony (Blue Note), finds the 68-year-old Maryland native leading a group that includes Petra Haden (vocals), Hank Roberts (cello, vocals), and Luke Bergman (guitars, vocals). With its focus on harmony vocals, the quartet performs such traditional songs as "Red River Valley," "Lush Life," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," and a sublime version of Lerner and Loewe's "On the Street Where You Live," alongside some of Frisell's compositions. I began my conversation by asking: What sound or feeling were you looking for with this new group?

Bill Frisell: I never know what it's going to be before it happens. I'm going by my instincts. I am super close friends with each of these people in the band, but they had never met or played together. My initial thought was to Petra's singing, Hank playing cello, and Luke playing baritone guitar, and that we should all get together. We had a rehearsal before a gig where we performed new music I wrote, a commission by the Fresh Grass Music Festival. I thought, "Petra, Luke, and Hank are really good singers." We worked up "Red River Valley," they sang that, and I realized, "Oh man, now we're onto something." I got super fired up about that. That kind of pushed it into a whole new world that I wasn't even prepared for. The gig was a first inkling of what we could do featuring the singing. It was selfishness on my part, an opportunity to push my guitar up into the sound of those voices together. I was seduced by the beauty of it. Then we did a few gigs, then the record.

Ken Micallef: What do you look for when creating an album?

Frisell: This isn't a protest record, but it provides comfort or an oasis of beauty in the midst of everything else. I look for this place in music where no matter how dark things get on the outside, I enter into the music and it gives me a framework to deal with the real world. And the things that are going on these days—it's frightening what's happening in the world. It's incomprehensible.

Micallef: Your music always provides a feeling of escape.

Frisell: Thank you. The definition of harmony is not just a musical thing. Music is for me this model for how we can get through all of this. [Music and harmony] also give you a framework for how people can get along. There's tension and release and rhythm and melody and that's how we interact with each other. You push up against each other and there can be clash, but there's also resolution. Music is this perfect thing. It's amazing what happens in music.

Micallef: The new album definitely provides musical escape. It's very homey sounding. I was particularly taken with your version of "On the Street Where You Live." Petra's vocal and your guitar playing and the group's performance—it's amazing.

Frisell: I've played that song a lot over the years. I keep coming back to it. I tried to be true to the song. It was hard. But it's pretty democratic how we come up with arrangements. On that one, Luke Bergman came up with the vocal parts and the counterlines.


Micallef: The song was written in 1956, and the feeling it expresses, kind of a community-felt innocence, isn't the country we live in today.

Frisell: If you go on the street now and listen to those lyrics, it's a surprising sentiment. Now we have people living on the street.

Micallef: What about the song appealed to you?

Frisell: The melody, if you pick it apart, is incredible. Just two days ago, I was in my room struggling with the bridge of that song. It's really insane. There's all kind of subtle, unusual chord movements. I recorded that song years ago with Ron Carter and Paul Motian [Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Elektra Nonesuch, 2006)]. I think I understand the song, and a couple years go by and I look at it again and I realize all these things I've missed. That's constantly happening to me, even with my own songs. I'll come back to some song I wrote 30 years ago and I'll notice things that I didn't know were there the first time around.

Micallef: Who is your role model in playing standards?

Frisell: I'd hear Sonny Rollins play whatever songs he chose, and sometimes people would say "Why is he playing these corny songs?" "I'm an Old Cowhand" or "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." But he transforms them into this amazing thing. And that made me want to play those songs that's he's playing. Sonny or Miles Davis played those songs because they'd heard them on the radio. They're part of their life. I'll play a Beatles song and it's almost like Sonny Rollins gave me the keys or a clue of how to do it.

Micallef: Your signature is your use of color, space, and texture within the framework of jazz, pop, and country music standards. You conjure this magic and bring the listener along for this startling journey. How do you translate those ideas of color, sound, and texture on the guitar and in your music?

Frisell: It becomes more and more and more as time goes on, but the whole time I've been in music, there's always something beyond my grasp out there. I'm hearing something that I can't articulate. It's like I'm constantly reaching for this thing, "Oh, there it is." But I can't get it.


Micallef: You hear a sound you can't get?

Frisell: Yeah, it's like the sound and the notes and everything are always beyond my grasp. I've seen that almost crush musicians. It's so huge. As long as I've been playing, and still, what's out there in front of me is infinite. I keep learning and growing, but I had to become comfortable with the fact that I am never going to get there. When I was younger, I had this misconception that if I practiced really hard, I'd get it. Like, "Just get it all together and then you can do anything," but it's never going to happen.

Sonny Rollins said, "You can't be thinking about that stuff." He says you just have to practice, keep working on it. He is beyond a virtuoso of expression, but he's still humbled by the music. So whatever sound I'm getting, it's an approximation of something that's in my imagination. I'm reaching for it; I could be hearing something that might not have a lot to do with the guitar. It's more when I think of all the music that I've heard, it could be the sound of an orchestra or the sound of a drum or a voice, and I'm sort of making a stab at it. I'll hear that in my head, trying to mimic it or imply it with what I play. Often I try to approach it like Jim Hall, who is another big influence on me, the way he would play smaller things that can become large if they're placed in the right environment.

Micallef: You're a master of placing things, sonically. I saw you in 2014 with Carrie Rodriguez at Lincoln Center: You created beautiful architecture in sound, then you'd take it some other place.

Frisell: Sometimes things are happening and I can think about it too much. There's something good about being naive in what you're doing. If you figure it out, it takes some of the magic away.

Micallef: You note Sonny Rollins, but to me you more resemble Wayne Shorter, that surreal, cerebral nature of his music.

Frisell: Sonny and Wayne are like gods for me. It's incredible to watch Wayne. The way he waits till the exact moment to act. And you can see it. Maybe he's going in a certain direction, then he stops and doesn't. Miles, too. He had the idea that it's just as important what you don't play. Whatever you play or don't play, or what you play before or after it, or where you maintain silence is absolutely as important as whatever you actually play.


Micallef: Are you happy with the way your sound has been captured on recordings?

Frisell: I feel really lucky with that. [Producer] Lee Townsend, who I've done so many records with, and Tucker Martine, the engineer, make it so I don't have to think about it. I can talk about something sounding a certain way, and there's so much trust with those guys. I feel happy with the way we're using the studio. We've found a way so that the band aren't squashed by headphones and all that technical stuff, but at the same time they've got it set up so we can really play. Hopefully it sounds good to other people.

Micallef: Do you overdub guitar on the records?

Frisell: There's a few overdubs here and there on the new record, but it's a pretty true representation of what the band sounds like. My previous solo guitar album [Music Is] was mostly recorded in real time, but we stacked things more.

Micallef: Does a particular guitar or amp affect what you play?

Frisell: Definitely. That's why I've developed a little bit of a problem with guitars. We recently moved back to New York from Seattle, and I don't have room for all 40 or 50 of my guitars. But every one of them has something unique. It's some sort of feel that one has, the kind of tension and how much you have to push up against it, but every single guitar has a different thing. Even if you put ten Fender Telecasters next to each other, each one is going to have something different. It's like a different rainbow or different overtones. The way things ring, certain frequencies come out in a different way. Each guitar leads me to different places.

Micallef: What guitar, amplifier, and effects pedals are we hearing on Harmony?

Frisell: I'm playing one guitar. A Bill Nash Telecaster. I met his brother, [Jazz at Lincoln Center tenor saxophonist] Ted Nash. Their father, Dick Nash, is an extraordinary trombone player that you've heard all your life. He's on thousands of soundtrack albums. He was in The Tonight Show band and on all of Henry Mancini's records. They invited me to lunch, where I also met Bob Bain, the guitarist who played on the theme to Bonanza and on the Audrey Hepburn version of "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's. And at that lunch I got to meet another guitar hero of mine, Dennis Budimir. They had these incredible stories of working with Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

Micallef: What else are you using on the album?

Frisell: I played Luke's acoustic guitar on a couple songs. It's a Waterloo by Collings guitar. I use a Line 6 Delay for loops and delay, and a reverb unit, a Strymon Flint. I don't use much distortion. It's mostly just the guitar. Ninety percent of what I play is just the guitar going into the Strymon into Tucker Martine's old Gibson GA-18 Explorer amp. I have one at home. I also used his Carr Rambler amp. I plug into both running stereo.

Micallef: The trio you maintained with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian was such a unique space, so much color and texture. How did you approach your space in that trio?

Frisell: There was a definite learning curve. We'd been playing as a quintet and then Paul wanted to try a trio. I remember the very first time we played trio, I had this feeling of almost like not quite panic, but I felt I needed to fill in space—like, "Oh, I need to play a low note here to get this feeling." I was afraid of the space. There was a point where I realized, "Okay, I can let this go. I don't always have to play [the lower register] all the time." Then the sounds or frequencies of Paul's drums suddenly became clear and had meaning; the bass drum became a whole instrument unto itself. Theoretically, it should always be the same. It's just people listening and playing together, but that trio was reconfigured to where we had the opportunity to place things. It opened up the lower register of the guitar for me. And also when I wasn't playing down there, the whole lower part of the drums suddenly became a voice.

I've learned how in some groups you can turn things upside down, like have a bass part happen in a higher register. You can turn things on their head. I learned a lot about that in that trio. And we played together for so many years, since the mid-'80s until Paul passed away. So there was a point where we weren't trying to figure anything out at all.

Micallef: What's in your hi-fi?

Frisell: It's better than it used to be. Before, I had stuff from Goodwill. Now I have a decent separate amplifier, a Hafler Trans-Nova P3000 power amp that a friend in Boulder recommended, and a Hafler DH-110 preamplifier. I have a Yamaha KX-W202U cassette player and a Denon CDR-W1500 CD player. And I got really good speakers, a pair of ProAc Studio 100s. They're ones that we've always used for mixing for many years. They're small, but I've mixed all my records on those. And then I recently got a functioning Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive turntable. This new record is coming out on vinyl.

Micallef: Do you prefer vinyl or CD?

Frisell: I remember when CD was new. I was with Paul Motian in Paris and we went to this store and they played us a CD and I thought, "Wow, this is incredible. There's no noise." Within a couple years, it was all CDs. I totally went for it. Then 10 years ago, I had this Deutsche Grammophon record of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale. I hadn't listened to a record in so long. I played this Stravinsky record almost as an afterthought. And immediately I was like, "Oh man, we've been screwed. How did that happen? Why does this record sound so good?" The sound of the vinyl sort of enveloped me. It sounded so much better. And even though it was scratched, I was like, "Wow." I realized we'd really been had.

The reality is I still miss the way we used to play records. I'm talking about 40–50 years ago when I used to sit around with my friends, and we'd put on a record and it was an event. We'd all gather around the stereo, put on the new Miles Davis record, and just flip out. It was special. It was a sacred time focused entirely on one side of the record, then we'd turn it over and do it again. These days for me to be able to have enough time to sit there and listen, it doesn't happen as often as it used to. I miss that.

mmole's picture

Thanks Ken. That was a wonderful interview.

To your "celebrated triumvirate" I would want to add the late John Abercrombie. I don't think he ever made a bad album. I highly recommend "Timeless" (with Hammer and DeJohnette) and the two "Gateway" albums (with DeJohnette and Holland).

As long as I'm making recommendations, Frisell's two albums with Ginger Baker and Charlie Haden, "Going Back Home" and "Falling Off the Roof" are top notch.

Charlie Haden reminds me of Frisell bandmate Petra Haden. Her multitracked, acapella version of "The Who Sells Out" (including the commercials and station breaks) is reverent and very funny.

ken mac's picture

is one of my favorite albums of all time. High Level burning masterful improv.
Though I don't care for the Baker albums, he's the original lead-foot of drummers. Never thought he was much of a jazz drummer, though he copied Phil Seaman note for note. His glory is Cream.

jeffhenning's picture

Bill Frisell is an absolutely fantastic guitarist. No contesting that, but...

Of Allan Holdsworth:

"Allan really changed guitar playing. His legato techniques and "sheets of sound" approach influenced not only jazz guitarists, but also a whole generation of metal players."
John Scofield

"Allan is one of the greatest guitarists ever. His work has been revolutionary and has changed everything for guitarists everywhere."
Pat Methany

"Holdsworth is so damned good that I can't cop anything. I can't understand what he's doing. He's the best in my book. He's fantastic!"
Eddie Van Halen

"Allan has the touch. Maybe it's those extra long fingers of his. No one can listen to him without being affected by his tone and fluidity."
Adrian Belew

"You can call his playing whatever you want to, but it will still fry your brain if you try to figure it out."
Carlos Santana

I could go on.

It's truly is great that you are giving space to a player of Bill Frisell's calibre.

Did your magazine ever do that for Allan Holdsworth? I'm pretty sure not. Stereophile should have especially when you consider that all of his solo recordings where remastered and re-released not long before he died at 70 a bit less than 3 years ago.

I will absolutely & uncategorically state that Allan Holdsworth was the most influential jazz guitar player in the last 3 decades. I think the quotes above prove that (they come from his only box set and it includes about a dozen more).

Ken, that you didn't know this is not that surprising since, even though he immigrated to the States from the UK, he was not well known here though rather popular in Japan and Europe. I think he liked that since he was an introvert and a perfectionist.

Holdsworth was the quintessential guitarist's guitarist.

All of AH's solo stuff (12 albums) is available remastered from Manifesto Records. Some of the limited box sets can still be had on Ebay. They also have two CD/DVD sets of live concerts as well as another to come out this spring.

Had you known about AH, I'm sure that Mr. Frisell would have talked about him as glowingly as Methany and Scofield.

Ken, you, sir, need to expand your universe.

ken mac's picture

Jeffhenning, you assume an awful lot. I have interviewed Holdsworth twice (JazzTimes, Modern Drummer), have all of his recordings on one format or another, seen him perform twice, and have followed him since he appeared like a comet on Tony Williams Lifetime's "Believe It!" As Vinnie Colaiuta is to drumming, Holdsworth was to guitar, the most innovative musician on his instrument to this point in time. But innovation does not always equate to popularity. Neither does being a "guitarist's guitarist." Stereophile attempts to appeal to its broad readership. Also consider, as Jim Austin is now the editor, he is opening the mag's music features to a wider array of genres and interests. Neither Jim nor myself had any control over the music features under the previous music editor.

jeffhenning's picture

...if you have influenced all the influencers, who is more influential?

As to popularity, jazz is not really all that popular.

Apparently, you, though, have a better understanding of what AH was to guitar than those best at it.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Listen to 'Blues for Tony' live ......... Some good drumming there too with Chad Wakerman :-) .......

jeffhenning's picture


Got that DVD, but saw Holdsworth live at the Sellersville Theater on the tour before that.

Actually, ate dinner next to Wackerman, Pasqua & Haslip in the dining room before the concert. There is an associated hotel, the George Washington, next door to the theater with the dining room and, then, rooms upstairs

The tiny town was about to get hammered with snow and there were about 200 people in the space, but it was packed full.

He loved playing out, but didn't like meeting his fans. I think he ate in his room.

Seeing that level of virtuosity cannot be unseen. If you are a musician, you are transformed and never to return. If you are not, it seems interesting, but not compelling.

Life seems much less brilliant than it used to since he and many others passed.

I do, though, look for new wonders everyday.

ken mac's picture

The goal wasn't to ask Bill about other guitarists, rather his music.

jeffhenning's picture

you live and you learn.