Bill Frisell interviewed by Gordon Whiting
January 30 2015
Bill Frisell is playing March 12-13 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. March 12 is solo, March 13 is a full ensemble playing selected treasures from from TV and Film.
Gordon Whiting: People might think they know your music because they’ve heard a CD or seen you play, but your restless ear keeps us all on our toes. Are you just trying to be difficult?
Bill Frisell: Not at all. Music is such an amazing place, it’s this extraordinary world to be in. My whole life, I haven’t really changed any kind of approach to it. When I think all the way back to the beginning it’s been this constant– whatever you do, whatever I do, the next moment there’s always another question or opportunity. Every note or every song always suggests something else. So it’s this incredible feeling of exploration, of following whatever comes up in front of me, reaching out for it. You can never, never get there. At first it can be overwhelming. When I was really young I thought there was a time when, if you practiced real hard you would get to the end of it, and then you’d play really good, it would be just great. But there’s always this aspect that you can never quite play what you’re reaching for. So there was a point where I had to get comfortable with not ever being all the way there. I guess I’m talking about five different things at the same time.
GW: Well, let’s take one of those things. You’ve played with a lot of the great musicians of legend, and maybe some that deserve to be. Is it easier to play with challenging, great musicians, or musicians you can control a little bit? Where do you prefer to be?
BF: Everyone that I’ve played with, I feel like I’m learning. Those are my teachers. I went to school and I studied with different people, I read books and listened to records, but there’s nothing like being right next to another person, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the most intense, superfast way– it didn’t take too long to figure that out. I could spend years working on some kind of a scale, or trying to remember a song, but then you’re on a gig and somebody plays a song that you don’t know– you have to learn it really fast. It enters into you in a different way. Some of the guys I’m playing with now are not as famous as some other guys– the notoriety doesn’t really have anything to do with it. But then again I never dreamed I’d get to play with so many of the people that had such a gigantic impact on me. I feel I’m so lucky. When I was in high school one of the first jazz concerts I ever went to was to hear Charles Lloyd play. He had Keith Jarrett on piano and Paul Motian was playing drums. If you had told me then that I would play for thirty years with Paul Motian, and now I’m doing some gigs with Charles Lloyd…(pause) I don’t know how that’s possible!
GW: Let’s take another of the threads you laid out there. Your influences, if one listens carefully, show are a lot of guitarists in the mix, like Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Chet Atkins and even vintage Clapton, Tal Farlow– but who might we be surprised to hear is in your list of influences?
BF: I always mention Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. Jim Hall was another person that I actually got to take lessons with, later played gigs with. I think of him often, and there was a real key thing that I started to get from him– that it wasn’t so much about the guitar. He was an extraordinary guitar player but I think that’s were I started to notice it had so much more to do with the way he was interacting with everyone around him. And then, having got to meet him and talk to him, he wasn’t really talking about guitar players, he was saying, “have you heard this voicing that Bill Evans played on the piano,” or “listen to the way Sonny Rollins develops this small bit of material,” or “listen to this Bach violin sonata.” And it was ‘oh what a minute, it’s not just the guitar, it’s the whole world of music.’ When that started happening my attention went way beyond just the instrument itself. As I got more comfortable with just holding the instrument, it started to become this…you’re just thinking about all music, and not just guitar music. I’m saying that, but I have this new record, Guitar in the Space Age, where I go in the opposite direction. You know, just thinking about the guitar itself.
GW: Tell us about that. I think you would admit there’s kind of a curatorial aspect to a lot of your endeavors, and there is in this one. Guitar in the Space Age has a nostalgic twinge in the title, and you nail the mood with the selections (Telstar, Surfer Girl, Rebel Rouser, Rumble, etc.) Those are guitar pieces, and you’ve re-imagined them in ways where they feel familiar, but they’re fresh. That is probably harder than it looks–
BF: Here I find myself, almost sixty-four years old, and I start thinking about all this music that got me fired up at the very beginning. Between the early 60’s and the late 60s I went from listening to surf music, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, and then I heard the Rolling Stones, then I heard Jimi Hendrix, and then I heard Miles Davis. And then I was listening to Stravinsky. All that happened within a four or five year period. I’m thinking ‘wow, that is insane– there’s no way I could have absorbed all that stuff.’ I know when you’re young you can soak up things faster, but I just started thinking I hadn’t really spent much time playing the things that made me want to play in the first place. So that was where the general idea came from, to go back and look. It’s really far out to play a song that I barely played when I was 13 or 14 years old, and now having spent fifty years playing the guitar, to play it again. Put it like this, it’s like looking at it through this lens. I mean there’s no other way this could have happened, if I hadn’t spent all this time playing.
GW: It’s such a great record. Looking at the line-up I thought the steel guitar (played by Greg Leisz) and your lead might collide, but they don’t. The Brian Wilson composition– just the changes, without any particular soloing, are elevated by that combination of instruments you put together. Quite elegant.
BF: Yeah well, Greg Leisz, had a lot to do with it. Now we’ve been playing together for quite a while, almost 20 years. There’s some kind of– he’s another guy that just came along, and from the first note, there’s just an unspoken thing.
GW: With or without other guitarists, there is a lot of space in your music. Sometimes many beats, or even measures, will go by before you come back in with a phrase. Did that evolve or was that always in your style?
BF: I think you can probably tell by now…actually I think I’m better than I used to be (at talking)– but when I play it’s a truer way of expressing myself. It’s my real voice. You can hear when I’m talking that I’m hesitating. It’s natural for me to use a pause here and there, to figure out what the next thing’s going to be. I think with music there’s a pretty strong connection between your speaking voice and what you play on your instrument. Again, it’s not something that’s worked out. I never really thought about it that much.
GW: Tell us about your relationship with the audience.
BF: I am aware of the audience, and I need the audience, and I love the audience, but when it really gets down to it, I’m doing what gets me going. I’m not trying to figure out what the audience wants. I’m trying to get to the truest place for my own self. It’s an amazing feeling if the audience is willing to come along with that. If it doesn’t work, I’ll never…it’s pretty weird the way you can play one piece of music for ten people and they’ll each hear it in a completely different way. Some people won’t like it, and some people will, some people think it’s sad, some people think it’s happy, some people think it’s fast and some people think it’s slow. Unbelievable! It’s ridiculous to try to figure out what they want. All I can do is play. Sometimes the audience gets upset because I’m not looking at them. The thing that helps me a lot is I have to focus on the other guys in the band– some people get upset if my back’s to them, they don’t get to look at my fingers.
GW: First Miles, now Frisell, with the back turned….
BF: Not quite! I have to just zero in on the guys in the band. People ask me do I ever get stage fright, and I think that as soon as I’m in the music that it’s impossible. When I’m with the guys in the band and the music just envelopes you…that’s really one of the few places where I’m not afraid, actually. It’s much more scary being out in the world.
GW: You’re going to be performing your show “When You Wish Upon A Star” at UMS here in Ann Arbor on March 13. It’s another ambitious undertaking with an ensemble and lots and lots of music from TV and Film. What put you in mind to explore this?
BF: Well, like so many things, it started with the people involved. A couple of years ago I did a gig in San Francisco, where I had a whole bunch of different people playing each night. And there was one night where we ended up with a group of…I have a long relationship with all these people really. I guess Thomas Morgan (bass) might be the most recent, but even him I’ve known for quite a long time. And then, almost by accident, everyone from that San Francisco night was at this other festival, and we ended up doing a set of music with Petra Haden singing, Eyvind Kang on viola, Rudy Royston on drums, Thomas Morgan on bass, and it was like ‘wow, this is something!’ I knew it would be good, but then all these chemical reactions started happening. At Lincoln Center I had this opportunity to do a program with all these TV and movie themes, so I just thought it would be great with these guys. It was way-off-the-scale exciting for me! The wealth of stuff to draw from, it’s just insane.
GW: You’re also doing a solo evening here, on March 12. What will you be playing?
BF: Well, first of all it’s a luxury these days to have a couple of nights in one place. But I won’t know until I start playing– that’s where I absolutely feel free to go in any direction I want. I don’t really figure that stuff out at all, I just start playing and let things go where they go.