The Message is Music: A Conversation with Bill Frisell


We are fortunate to have as part of our Seattle community the internationally respected composer and guitarist Bill Frisell. Awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Record this year for his album Unspeakable (Nonesuch, 2004), Frisell is one of today's most original and innovative composers. He creates a unique and distinct voice that has developed into his own personal musical language. With a seamless quality to his compositional approach, Frisell weaves between various cultures, generations and styles within his art form. At the heart of his creative process, he stays true to the jazz approach. Yet on the surface, there liesa musical diversity from many generations of Americana to the music of South America, Europe and Africa. A brilliant guitarist, one hears influences from Jim Hall to Jimi Hendrix. But to focus on his technical proficiency would be to deny his compositional genius as a painter of sound.

In a recent discussion about Frisell. guitarist Pat Metheny commented, "Bill has many great qualities as a musician, and I feel that they reflect his spirit as a person. Chief among those qualities would be his generosity in every setting he appears in. He offers his fellow players a very special kind of environment to do whatever it is that they do best. The quality of sharing and giving is paramount to what makes Bill Bill, and a big part of what makes him the great that he is."
Awarded Downbeal'f. Guitarist of the Year honors in 1998 and 1999, Frisell has participated in over 200 recordings with a diversity of artists such as Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Wayne Horvitz, Joe Lovano, Paul Motian. FJvln Jones, John Zorn, Joey Baron, Laurle Anderson, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Jerry Douglas, Don Byron, ElvisCostello, Jim Hall and Norah Jones and still have time to compose close to 30 albums of hisown compositions. In more recent years, he has composed soundtracks for film.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss a number of music-related subjects with Frisell. The following interview reflects the humbleness and sensitivity of a profound voice in creative music.

EARSHOT JAZZ:Has it become more difficult to stay true and honest with your own creative process as you have become more successful?

BILL FRISELL: It's kind of a double edge with a lot more of everything but It can go both ways. There's a lot more distraction hut then there are a lot more opportunities to do exactly what I want to do. It's weird when people start noticing you. There are more reviews, more is written and people start talking about you like what we're doing now. It's not about what the music Is really. I'd also like to think I'm not influenced by what people say either negative or positive, but I can't really help noticing what someone says, I'm the only one that really knows what's going on with my music and I try to not let what someone says influence me too much, but I'm sure it does. And there was definitely something pure 30 years ago when I was sitting in my little apartment practicing with hardly any gigs and nobody knowing who I was. It was just the music and nothing else. That's changed for sure.

EARSHOT: When people hear your name, they don't think in terms of a style or category anymore, theyjust think of the Frisell sound. Would it be a more positive approach if the Industry would market the music based around the Individual artist rather than specific styles or labels?

FRISELL: Boy, I wish it were that way because it feels uncomfortable to be boxed in or labeled. Perhaps I have gotten out of it a little bit, but I still feel excluded. I feel as if a small victory has been made if someone from another area gets to hear my music. It's frustrating that if it can be one thing, then it can't be another, and it doesn't make any sense because hardly any music is just one thing. Pulse magazine had those desert island discs where people were asked to select ten records they would bring to an island. I don't know if it's a reflection of how people have been conditioned but one person would list ten Rolling Stone records and the next guy would list ten polka records. It was weird. I couldn't believe how narrow some of the listening was. If I had to go to an island and only had 10 picks, I would want to listen to different flavors of music. That would seem the most logical thing to do. But we have had it pounded into us and it just doesn't make any sense to me
at all.

EARSHOT: I believe that one of your first performances in Seattle was part of the Earshot ]azz Festival?

FRISELL: It's one of the very first places where I was asked to play my own music, I was still living in New York and trying to get my own band going and one of the first gigs was at the Earshot Festival in 1988.1 then moved here in 1989. At the time, I was playing in little places in New York and in Europe, but it was still a struggle. I don't remember exactly how it came up but it was like wow. they're gonna give us a real gig! And now after fifteen or sixteen years, there isstill new stuff that I can go check out. They'll have Keith Jarrett and other big name people, but then they'll have people that are just getting going that I want to check out. And perhaps this is kind of a personal and selfish thing hut I've been able to do things that I would not necessarily have been able to do any-where else such as with the band, the Intercontinenrals. The first time we ever played was at the festival as kind of an experiment and we ended up making a record and touring as a band. I was able to try out this completely new thing. There was another oddball thing that I was able to do with Jack Dejohnette. That was incredible! The year before, I was able to play with Han Bennink, Paul Bley and Lee Konitz. Most festivals want to have real safe bets with more established bands, but Earshot will also bring in other people throughout the year. I feel thankful that they are here because we are off the beaten track and when you are on the East Coast, you can sort of get to California. But to get up here, it's another stretch. They've really turned it into one of the places where people can come through and play.

EARSHOT: I have always felt that although Seattle is far removed geographically, and maybe because of it, we have been able to develop our own unique way and appreciation for music. I think people here have pretty big ears.

FRISELL: I felt the same thing when I first came to Seattle. That first gig we played at the Nippon Kan Theater was full, I thought there might be 25 people, so we were completely surprised. It was so weird. There is definitely an openness or curiosity with the listeners here and one of the things that attracted me to Seattle was that it seemed not as connected to some fashion. I guess that happens everywhere, but Seattle seemed to be comfortable with itself and wasn't trying to be like New York or Los Angeles, where one is always trying to outdo or be cooler than the other, Seattle always seemed to be kind of outside of worrying about what people thought of it.

EARSHOT: I read a quote that was attributed to you that reads, "Rather than as a style, I see jazz as a way of thinking, a way of attacking music." Could you expand on those thoughts?

FRISELL: In the 1960s, jazz was this constantly living, evolving thing, when you went out and bought the new Miles record, you would see the whole history of everything moving ahead. You'd learn about the history, but it hadn't stagnated or solidified into this one thing. Part of the deal was that if you played jazz, it was understood that you had to understand the history, but were suppose to figure out a way to move it ahead. So you would think about the process and try to imagine what these musicians were thinking or look at what they did from record to record. I would then try to imagine what I could do to find my own thing. That was part of the struggle and still is for me. But it seems that in the last few years, priorities have become mixed up and turned into this thing. OK, jazz is this and to do it correctly, you have
to wear a suit, look a certain way and have to follow all these rules and stay within certain parameters. That's just not what it's about for me. So people ask, "Is what you're playing now jazz?" I mean, I don't know what it is I'm playing. It sjust music. But I still feel as if it's coming more from jazz than anything else even if it doesn't sound like it. Even if it sounds more country and western or whatever kind of style it sounds like. I still think the inner workings come more from jazz than anywhere else.

EARSHOT: For me, it's kind of similar to what happened to the saxophone when it was introduced to classical music. It wasn't respected by the classical community because the sound of the sax was so closely related to jazz.

FRISELL: Right, And it has nothing to do with the outside sheen of the thing. You have to listen through or past the edge of it.

EARSHOT: And the guitar is so closely related to so many other things.

FRISELL: Yeah, just the sound of the guitar can't help but bring to mind other things. Its so easy for it to resonate or associate with pop music or non-jazz stuff.

EARSHOT: Your approach to melody seems unique in that you break it down piece by piece until you are dissecting the elements of sound within the context of melody. Can you explain that process?

FRISELL: When I first started getting into jazz, I studied what was going on with the music theoretically and would look at things more in a mathematical way. I would look at the chords and learn what the chord tones were, what the scales were. But somewhere along the way, I tried to understand all the inner workings of the melody. If the melody isn't there, then it really doesn't mean anything. It's also where it gets harder to explain. With every song, I'm trying to internalize the melody so strong that that's the backbone for everything that I am playing no matter how abstract it becomes. Sometimes I'll just play the melody over and over again and try to vary it slightly. It's really coming from that, like trying to make the melody the thing that's generating all the variations rather than some kind of theoretical mathematical approach.

EARSHOT: What do you mean by internalizing the melody?

FRISELL: It's playing and hearing the melody—and not playing anything but the melody—until it starts going on inside your body, even without thinking about it. But the older I get, the longer it seems to take to learn new things and get it to the point where it's really deep down in there somehow.

EARSHOT: Cecil Taylor said, "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical. The great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cedl Taylor describes?

FRISELL: Well, I'm hoping it's coming from that place that he's talking about. That's what I'm trying to get at. But like he said, there's all that stuff like discipline. For me, music is kind of a magical thing. When it's really happening, I'm trying to figure out what it is, though I can't really describe it But the real depth comes when you get caught up in this ocean of music and get swept away.

EARSHOT: What inspires you?

FRISELL: It's still from music and musicians, but I guess I'm becoming more aware that it can come from anywhere. Looking out the window, going for a walk or just feeling a certain way. It could be from just about anywhere. It's just being a human, really. Music is just a reflection of whatever we are as people. If I stay wound up in a room and am thinking about nothing but notes and chords, after a while it really doesn't mean anything.

EARSHOT: Can you explain what you have learned about yourself throughout your career?

FRISELL: I just feel so lucky. Like I won the lottery and I'm being allowed to do all of this stuff. That's what's amazing to me. When I was younger, I always dreamed about being able to record and have gigs and now it's actually happening, and it sometimes just seems too good to be true. I don't really know what I've learned because with music, it's never-ending. In so many ways, it still feels like the first time I tried to play.

EARSHOT: Is it possible to put into words what you are trying to do with your music today?

only way I have of expressing myself. That's how I communicate what I need to communicate. I need to have people listening. It's nice to sit around the house and play my guitar. But when you're playing for people, that's what I love. I still don't know that there is anything desertbable in what I'm trying to say. I feel lucky to be able to play music in front of people, but it can seem so selfish. I'm doing it for myself, but I need people there. It doesn't make any sense if the people are not listening. But I also know that you cannot try to figure out what people want to hear. All I can do Is what I want to do. I just put it out there and hope that they are willing to listen. I think musicians get into trouble when they try to figure out what someone else is going to like, which can turn into a disaster.

EARSHOT: What do you envision for the future of jazz—and for yourself, personally?

FRISELL: I can get kind of bummed out with everything getting computerized and compartmentalized. Everything's getting squeezed out and I get discouraged. But then I'm actually pretty optimistic. There is always somebody doing something interesting and this kind of music has always been a little bit undeigrounil. You have to look around for it a little bit, but I think that'sjust part of the deal. You start to think it's not there. You can get discouraged. But then If you look, there Is someone in some basement figuring something out, trying to do something. I think the future is going to be fine.

Lloyd Peterson is the author of the book.
The Mystery of Sound: Today's Innovative Voices in Jazz, Improvisation and the Avant-garde Discuss University and the Creative Spirit, to be pub-lished by Scarecrow Press this fali. This interview was excerpted from that book.

• Earshot Jazz • June 2005