BILL FRISELL

It seems to me that whatever Jim Hall played he so much wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix, it's the same for me…

Bill Frisell



Pure avant-garde, without being completely free of all rules, but at the same time not being in the traditional mainstream; constructing his music logically and systematically, but also unpredictably; never once playing a virtuoso solo; three times voted best jazz guitarist by polls in 'Down Beat' magazine; totally faithful to all American music, but more successful in Europe than in America - these are some (not all) of the paradoxes of the last 10-15 years in this jazzman's career.
In truth, before this Bill Frisell was already known and accepted as a serious musician within the jazz world, but the distinctive 'Bill Frisell style' developed during the latter part of the 1980s. Even then he spoke the same language as the 'new sounds seekers': John Zorn, Tim Berne, Jan Garbarek, Mark Johnson, Wayne Horvitz, Paul Bley and Paul Motian and rebelled against the academic in jazz.

But every real revolution must begin from a desire to construct. Let's take a step back. Bill Frisell was born on 18th March 1951 in Baltimore, but he spent his youth in the city of Denver, Colorado. His father was a musician, playing the tuba and double bass, who would have liked his son to play the clarinet. Bill went along with this and studied with a teacher for an hour a day; and the guitar? At first Bill played guitar for his own entertainment.

Bill Frisell

His moment of truth ,however, happened when, as a teenager, he heard the playing of Mike Bloomfield, B B King and, especially, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. Hendrix's energy and obscurity, Montgomery's elegance and Hall's depth of thought were later brought together in Frisell's own playing. He is perhaps the first jazz guitarist to demonstrate that playing with energy and speed are not the same thing. In the 1960s he was studying the mysteries of composition and arrangement at Colorado State University… while also playing at weddings and parties and in the rhythm section of the university orchestra.

At that time his repertoire consisted mainly of James Brown songs and other R 'n' B music. As a student he had to find his own teacher, thus he met Dale Bruning Bruning's exceptional devotion to jazz helped to arouse Frisell's interest in the music. This was the beginning of the era of jazz-rock; Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew' album had already been released, but Bill was not yet aware of this music and was playing Montgomery, Hall and various standards. He studied for a while in Berkeley College in Boston, but left after one term. He felt they were more interested in rock 'n' roll than in jazz.

Bill's parents moved to New Jersey and he decided to go with them. He was lucky in his new place, he started taking lessons from one of his heroes Jim Hall and this was another turning point in Bill's life. Hall explained how to play non-standard harmonies, how to incorporate dissonance within harmonies while maintaining the lyric and how to maintain interest in the guitar sound. He also realised it was possible to substitute two notes for a chord; the young student absorbed these lessons very quickly. This may be why Bill Frisell is known as one of the most tolerant guitarists.

In 1975 he returned to Berkeley and met Pat Metheny who was just beginning his career. Pat introduced him to someone who was later to be colleague and co-thinker - Paul Motian. They have recorded 10 albums together; some of these albums, the foundation of his career, feature in the mainstream: 'Jack of Club', 'Misterioso', 'One Time Out', 'Triosim'. In these albums Bill played only as sidesman. He had this tio say about his collaboration with the well known drummer, "When I worked with Paul, 90% of the ideas came from him and it was impossible not to go with them because his music never followed mundane patterns."

Bill Frisell

The ideas are one thing, but Bill's patient and thoughtful playing make him an equal partner in the albums; only with Paul Motian did he work on such joint projects.
The always experimental John Zorn invited Bill Frisell to participate in his legendary project, 'Naked City'. Ronald Shannon Jackson, Melvin Gibbs and Frisell formed the 'PowerTools' trio. To say that they crossed the borders between modern jazz, country and hard rock is not enough, they simply 'swept away' these borders. The group's rich, but sometimes angry, playing shocked some and attracted other audiences; they were confident enough to play free jazz-rock interpretations of the music of Henry Mancini, Messaien and even… Debussy.
Bill Frisell

Their playing was certainly eclectic and provocative but also popular. Frisell's electric guitar playing was strong, distinctive and with a depth of sound more closely associated with heavy metal.
The young guitarist recorded on ECM records his first solo albums and also albums with the participation of Jan Garbarek, Paul Bley, bassist Mark Johnson, Arild Andersen and Eberhard Weber.

Following many moves and tours (he spent 1978 in Belgium, devoted to composition; 1979-88 in New York and various tours in the USA and Europe) Frisell settled in the city of Seattle and began the process of releasing an album per year of his own projects (as well as guesting with other groups). His own first group was 'The Bill Frisell Band'; it included Joey Baron (drums), Kermit Driscoll (double bass) and Hank Roberts (cello). His albums 'Lookout for Hope' (his last album for ECM), 'Before We were Born' (his first album on Elektra/Nonesuch), 'Is That You?' and 'Where in the World' made people talk about a new turn in modern jazz. The music was unmistakably Frisell from the first chord. Do you remember the famous 'Blindfold Test' in Downbeat magazine? People were played part of a track and asked to say who was playing. Whenever Frisell's music was played it was obvious even to non-musicians. The newspaper Chicago Tribune wrote about his music, "'Lookout for Hope' is a major event in modern jazz. This music has nobility, intelligence and subtlety." His compositions in the early 1990s contained many conflicting elements: compassion and cruelty, bright melodies and free playing, the familiar and the vague. These conjunctions entranced his audience.
The 'Where in the World' album in 1991 became an icon but was the band's swansong. It is true that both Driscoll and Baron worked again with Frisell but the music had taken a new direction; from 1993 Frisell's repertoire might be labelled 'Americana'. From abstract themes he moved on to more concrete patterns.

In the 90s Frisell attracted a particular audience which could appreciate mainstream, rock, blues or free jazz; the genre was no great matter, the main point was the appreciation of innovation and experiment and moderation of spirit; with regular changes to the group, Frisell retained the support of his fan base. In 1996 he formed the 'Bill Frisell Quartet' and recorded an album of the same name. Lacking a rhythm section the group consisted of Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Ron Miles (trumpet) and Eyvind Kang (violin). Rhythm was always important to Frisell and this was still the case, as a result the instruments swapped functions - after soloing during a piece each instrument would take on the responsibility of keeping the beat.

After an event in 1997 the guitarist's work was reinvented for most Americans, but Europeans had doubts about his jazz credentials. In that year he recorded his 'Nashville' album on which the influence of country music was prominent; a typical country vocal was backed by mandolin, banjo and harmonica. Perhaps with the album 'Have a Little Faith', he 'paid his dues' to classical and popular USA music, producing his most basic and folksiest music.

Bill Frisell

In the second half of the 90s, Bill Frisell was not preoccupied simply by his own ideas, he was also on tour with clarinettist Marty Erlich in the USA and England (with a programme dedicated to the works of Julius Hemphill), and giving concerts with Joey baron and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, as well as realising a project for a cinema film. In the last two years the changes in his groups have become almost a tradition. Reducing the group to a trio, he invited to his rhythm section musicians such as Viktor Kraus (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums) who had played blues/rock for some time (they had played with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Ry Cooder, John Lennon and Lyle Lovatt). One more 'strange meeting' occurred around this time - the 'Gone, Just Like a Train' and 'Good Dog, Happy Man' albums were released. What could emerge from the conjunction of a typical rock rhythm section and Frisell's meditative jazz guitar? "Maybe jazz-rock?" - but no… As usual, the unexpected happened. The playing has a vein of blues with a dry rhythm base underlaying the sharpness of a bright guitar sound. The acoustic guitar's unexpected opportunities to voice a 'juicy' classical sound demanded attention. No matter what he plays, he makes the music his own - each note has meaning and creates a phlegmatic and nostalgic air. His motto was 'changeless', there should be no superfluous moment. We look forward to following his future directions.

Yevgeniy Dolqikh