Bill Frisell: ‘my own true voice is the guitar’

Where do you start with Bill Frisell? Universally recognised as one of the most important guitar players of the last four and a half decades, he’s an artist whose freakishly amazing ear and impeccable technique combined with his vast theoretical knowledge and a profound understanding of melody and harmony, has pretty much set the bar for those who follow.

People say of Bill Frisell that he reinvented the way people think about the electric guitar. That’s possibly an understatement.

Bill is the complete musician; a master of his art and a man who has never stopped listening to and absorbing new avenues of expression. His musical catalogue is vast and varied; he’s played with just about everyone, from Pat Metheny, John Zorn, Joe Lovano, Paul Motian, Jan Garbarek to Ginger Baker, Marianne Faithfull, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Elvis Costello – seriously, there are too many to list here, but if you’re a fan you already know all this. He’s released around 90 albums as a leader or co-leader and has appeared as a sideman on countless other recordings. He’s won two Grammy awards, five Jazz Journalists Association ‘Guitarist of the Year’ awards and is regularly voted best guitarist by Downbeat Magazine (15 times at last count). He’s not defined by a single genre, embracing jazz, country, blues, folk, Americana, whatever appeals to his musical sensibility and it’s this openness to all music that makes him so admired by so many people. To all his projects he brings his versatility, his warm tone and a quiet understated virtuosity.

Bill Frisell at home | Photo: Emma Franz

He’s also completely down to earth and very charming and it was a real delight to speak to him by phone from his home in New York, before he heads down to Australia for a whirlwind tour, appearing in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Blue Mountains in early June.

As a listener, I’m drawn to Bill’s sensitive playing and that way he has of getting to the core of things. For instance, I love his interpretations of such songs as Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’. They have a patience, a slow drawing-out of the deepest heart of the melody that makes the music resonate and I wondered what drew him to those particular pieces. He told me that he has long associations with certain music, that many individual pieces are ingrained into his psyche. He was about 12 when he bought his first record with his own money back in 1963; he remembers it cost 49 cents. That record was Surfer Girl by the Beach Boys. You never forget your first. Bill loves that song to this day. The Beach Boys were a huge part of the fabric of his growing up; it’s the same with the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and ‘Moon River, the gorgeous theme from the film Breakfast at Tiffanys. For him, these pieces conjure the past and somehow it’s not even a conscious decision to perform them.

His 1992 album Have a Little Faith is another example of this unconscious decision-making. It features the music of such diverse composers as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, John Philip Sousa and Bob Dylan. “What I choose to play is a representation of what’s going on in my head at any time,” he says. The accumulation of things he’s heard and loved all his life are constantly swirling round his brain and perhaps the mix of songs on that album was a gut decision, something that spoke to him at that moment.

“I dive into an ocean of melodies, or to put it another way, I’m a bit like Tarzan swinging in the jungle, grabbing one branch then another and another. I’m not consciously thinking of what’s between the branches.”

Because of this diversity of approach and interpretation, Bill Frisell is often described as a musical chameleon. He plays masterfully in any genre he wants to play and incorporates all kinds of styles into his work. And along the way, he’s kept his own distinctive sound. The elements may be many and varied but there’s no mistaking the individuality he brings to his art. So interpreting a songs style, especially a Bill Frisell version, is a hard thing to put your finger on. He maintains it’s almost impossible to explain a song using words and understandably, Bill’s not keen on labelling music, because it doesn’t give the full picture. With Bill Frisell, discussion of ‘genre’ is not really helpful.

“You cant just say something is jazz or folk or rock or whatever, it’s all about the myriad things I’ve heard my whole life. Jazz is a music where anything is possible – you can put anything there, but it’s more of a process, a way of thinking and not a style – and there are many other elements in play at any one time. I never want to shut anything out.”

Putting your finger on composing is equally challenging. I asked Bill what gets him going when he writes music, a difficult (and perhaps annoying) question for any composer. When he wrote the soundtrack for Gary Larson’s animated film Tales From the Far Side, which can be heard on his 1996 album Quartet, Bill acknowledged that this was a different process from composing other pieces because he was looking at the Far Side images knowing the music had to support those images, but with other pieces, such as Disfarmer or Blues Dream, he tries to free himself of any preconceived ideas because he’s found they don’t always work. If he’s consciously aiming for a particular mood he feels a barrier come up, so he just pours out whatever’s in his mind at the time and revises as needed later. “I kind of go into another place. That’s not uncommon with composers,” he says. (I admit it wasn’t the best question to ask but the creative process is just so intriguing; there are probably as many compositional approaches as there are composers.)

On this Australian tour, Bill will be joined by Thomas Morgan (contrabass) and Rudy Royston (drums and percussion). I asked him why he’s chosen to collaborate with these particular musicians. “Thomas and Rudy are the key to everything,” he says. “It’s so much more about the person than the instrument. It wouldn’t matter what instrument they played – if Rudy played trombone, I’d have to play with him.”

Thomas Morgan, Rudy Royston and Bill Frisell | Photo: Stephen A’’Court.

The three men are good friends and share a remarkable rapport. Bill comments on the fact that Rudy, like Bill, grew up in Denver, Colorado so the pair share unspoken memories. Bill played with drummer/percussionist Paul Motian for 30 years until his death in 2011. Motian introduced Thomas Morgan to Bill and made him promise that they’d play together. What started as the honouring of a personal bond blossomed into a close friendship and a fine professional partnership (as proves Epistrophy, their latest album on ECM.)

Bill Frisell was generous with his time and his answers to questions he’s probably been asked twenty million times before. He apologised for not being able to explain things satisfactorily – “my own true voice is the guitar,” he says – which says a great deal about the personality of this self-effacing maestro, a term I do not use lightly. I thought he was very eloquent indeed and I could have spoken to him for hours. That would’ve been handy because I had many more things I’d like to have discussed with him. Maybe next time.

If you can get along to one of his five Australian performances, you won’t be sorry. Bill Frisell has oceans of inspiration he wants to share with listeners and you can be assured you’ll be hearing his “one true voice.”

Bill Frisell Trio: Australian tour, June 2019