Bill Frisell forges a tone, a style unique among contemporary guitarists
by Mike Gibson
Guitarist Bill Frisell is one of those rare musicians whose voice on his chosen instrument is self-defining. Possessed of a jazzer’s brain but a gypsy’s heart, he traffics in many genres, yet belongs to none. And though he spent his formative years chasing the sounds he heard from Miles Davis’ trumpet or from jazz guitarist Jim Hall, today he is considered no less a stylist than his idols.
It’s no small wonder, then, that Bill Frisell the man is such a humble, self-effacing sort. Now some 30 years into his career as a recording artist, Frisell still seems incredulous that he’s playing with the likes of former Miles Davis drummer Jack DeJohnette. Along with bassist Jerome Harris, the two men are currently touring in support of their The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers CD, a live duo recording captured at the Earshot Festival in Seattle in 2001.
“The first time I heard Jack was in 1971, when I went to hear Miles Davis play live,” says Frisell, in his characteristically earnest, soft-timbred voice. “So Jack has also been one of my heroes. To play with people like that… it’s still an amazing experience, it totally is. It blows my mind. It’s like being in a dream. Sometimes it feels like I’ve won the lottery or something.”
But if indeed Bill Frisell lucked out, it was by virtue of the fact that he was gifted with an ear and a touch unlike those of any other contemporary guitarist. The sound of his instrument is warm, searching, nuanced; he is capable of the harmonic complexity and fluidity of technique of a sophisticated jazzer, yet plays with a child’s undiluted curiosity and imagination. And with his gently overdriven tone and expansive musical vocabulary, his playing is adaptable to most any idiom he assays.
“You know, from my perspective, playing music doesn’t really feel any different than when I was 14 or 15 years old and first picked up a guitar,” Frisell says. “You’re hearing something in your head, and you’re trying to go for it, and you can’t quite get there. It still feels like that right now.
“People ask me about how I developed my style, my sound, but the truth is I don’t know what even causes that. I know that everyone on the planet has their own voice. And I think it’s natural that if you stay true to who you are, you build your own sound. It’s a lifelong process, reaching for this thing you hear in your head. You never get there, but that’s what’s so great about it. If you could figure it all out, there wouldn’t be any reason to play anymore.”
Untethered to any particular genre—unless you count “experimental” as a genre— The Elephant Sleeps is as pure a distillation as you’re liable to hear of the essence du Frisell. A series of 10 improvisations (plus a reading of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain”) featuring Frisell on guitar and banjo and DeJohnette on drums and piano, it charts a course through the realms of jazz, rock, world beat, and even classical music, without ever lingering too long in one place.
The performance itself was conceived by the two principals on spur of the moment, and Frisell says they will try to recapture a measure of its spontaneity in their shows with Harris.
“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen,” Frisell says. “That was the first time we’d played as a duo, and it was completely improvised. We really didn’t have much of a plan. Everything just sort of came about. So now we’re going to take some of the things we did there and use them as a jumping off point.”
But despite its genre hopping, there is an unmistakable continuity running through The Elephant Sleeps , a unity of purpose transmitted primarily via the connecting thread of Frisell’s signature sound. Formerly recognized for his idiosyncratic use of guitar effects, Frisell says he’s evolved to a point where achieves his radiant, lyrical tone more organically now.
“In a way, I’ve been using fewer and fewer effects,” he says. “Now a lot of what I’m playing is just the natural sound of electric guitar without too much going on there, just a little bit of reverb, maybe some echo or distortion.
“It seems as I’m getting older I’m getting closer to just using the pure sound of the guitar rather than putting it through a bunch of steps. From having used a lot of effects in the past, sometimes if I’m hearing something in my head that maybe first came from using an effect, now I can sort of get it without the effect. You hear the stuff up in your head, and you just kind of will it to sound that way.”
Who: Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette and Jerome Harris w/ opener Mitch Rutman
Q & A with 1220
by Heather Downs
Lead singer Jacob Gibson speaks on corruption inside the music biz and drunk audiences—a 1220 favorite.
Members of 1220 go way back, as far back as 8th grade?
What does 1220 stand for?
But you’ve been through seven drummers?
Do you write your own songs?
Why then add funk to your classic rock style?
Which tunes are crowd pleasers?
Are oldies a dying genre?
So the college-aged crowd is your favorite?
What does it feel like hearing your song played on the radio?
You’ve had two CDs released. How far do your aspirations stretch?