The unearthly floating sound of fearless musical explorer Bill Frisell is one of the most distinctive voices in music. Interview: Pete Langman
As fierce, uncompromising and decisive a guitarist as he is a soft-spoken, diplomatic and meandering conversationalist, Bill Frisell is equally comfortable playing 'straight' guitar as he is effects-laden, loop-heavy improvisations. Something of a musical enigma, he is usually lumped into the jazz category despite his regular sorties over the county line into blues, country and even contemporary classical.
His new album, Beautiful Dreamers, is, well… Frisell. It isn't a straight-ahead jazz album, and his trio is and isn't a straight-ahead jazz trio; chameleonic guitar stylings wax simultaneously simple and complex in collusion with Eyvind Kang's viola and Rudy Royston's drums.
There are shades of Hendrix in the way he quotes a melody, as standards appear and disappear as if they just happened to float through the recording studio at the moment the tunes were recorded, while waves of country and blues wash in and out.
It was recorded in just a couple of days, and rehearsed at a mere handful of gigs. 'Whatever is written is a springboard to the hope that something else will happen,' elucidates Frisell. 'We're hoping that every time we play it we're going to find something else in it. We start it in a different way, we get to it in a different way. That's why I never count off a tune or start a tune in any set tempo.'
There are few obvious guitar solos, as Frisell eschews the 'head, chorus, yo, let's blow' arrangements of so many instrumentalists. 'It's a constant conversation. It's very rare we think of one person being the soloist,' he explains in his soft-spoken way. 'When I listen to all my favourite – call it jazz – music… Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Monk… the soloist is just one part of what is really fascinating. It's like looking inside the workings of a clock: you don't look at just one part… well, you can, but the way in which it fits together is what's so amazing. The melody's really important, and it's somewhere in there all the time. It's never going away.'
This equality is born of Frisell's rather odd band recruitment methods. 'I wasn't thinking about the instruments so much,' he explains. 'That comes later. It's about the atmosphere, the spirit of the person. I'd played with each of them individually, and I knew that Eyvind and Rudy had to meet and would connect – in that way it's about the people but it's also about the music, too.' Frisell doesn't do pre-conception; he prefers to remain open to the moment. 'An opportunity shows up, it looks interesting and I just enter into it.'
In a career spanning several decades, Frisell has acquired one Grammy and several nominations, and collaborated with artists such as Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello and McCoy Tyner. Try to pin him down to a 'typical' Frisell track is difficult. 'I've been recording for over 30 years, and I put my whole life and energy into each album. Also, it's just a moment you capture at that time.' He finally suggests East/West, a live album with 'lots of different facets of my playing, older things and newer things and things that we had never even played before,' and the later History, Mystery.
Frisell started out on clarinet, and his first guitar was a Fender Mustang, followed by a Jaguar, an instrument he's taken to playing again recently. Though he has a predilection for oddballs like Klein guitars, he's been playing 'some kind of Telecaster' for some time. On Beautiful Dreamers he mostly used a custom Tele Thinline made for him by Jay Black, an ex-Fender Custom Shop man. 'It's a Telecaster but with a slightly shorter neck and a Gibson scale. Maybe it's not a Telecaster at all, but it looks like one, and it has these DeArmond pickups and a Fender pickup as well.'
He also has another nearly-Tele made by Rick Kelly of New York's Carmine Street Guitars. 'He makes them out of old wood he finds or people have given him, really really old pieces, really strange pieces of wood.'
Frisell is in many ways a walking dichotomy. He doesn't do straight lines, and his instinct is to take the path no-one else has spotted. Asked to give examples of his favourite tunes, he immediately picks Bob Dylan's Hey Mr Tambourine Man, but forgets who played guitar on the track, so takes a sharp left into Miles Davis' My Funny Valentine.
Suddenly, he remembers. 'Bruce Langhorne!' he exclaims. 'He just plays these tiny little counter-notes along to the song with Dylan playing the main rhythm guitar, and I realise that was a sort of blueprint for the way that I do so much of what I do. That was somebody that influenced me so much, and I didn't realise it until years later. He was incredible – is incredible – but not too many people know about him.'
Frisell is unfailingly modest. 'Every time I hear almost any guitar player, I feel inadequate,' he says. 'They're doing something I can't, that there's no way I'll ever be able to do. It's an amazing, strange instrument in that way… so many ways of playing it and not enough time.'
Unfailingly creative, Frisell seems to move constantly forward, and just as he creates, so he constantly listens. With Charlie Christian, for example, a guitarist he first heard on record 'maybe 40 years ago,' he still hears new things. 'It's like this slow, slow, revealing of how crazy he was, how modern,' he suggests, neatly identifying the heart of his own playing: gentle, crazy, based on the greats of the past yet resolutely of the now.
A Bill Frisell Gear File
Bill Frisell tends to rent or borrow equipment on the road, but he had a Fender Princeton and a handmade Jack Anderson amp close to hand at his recent New York shows. At home, he's particularly fond of a little Gibson amp. 'I think it's an Explorer or something, but it's like a 1×10" combo from 1960, or whatever.' It's actually a Gibson GA18T. 'I just love that amp, it's very simple.'
Effects include a Line 6 delay for looping, a Lexicon MPX-100 multi-FX for reverb and a Tube Screamer for distortion, though he's recently nabbed a Fuzz-Stang, a Sam Ash Fuzz-Stainer reissue. 'It's like this really extreme OTT fuzztone thing made by this guy in Portland, Oregon.
'With the electronics, the effects,' he continues, 'there's kinda this double life.
I'm more and more attracted to the natural sound of the guitar, usually the electric guitar plugged straight into the amp, but then there's the electronic stuff. I love the guitar just on its own, just the guitar, but I also love all these other sounds.