July/August 2006 By Lee Mergner
People Get Together
With the newsstand more crowded and competitive than ever, we endeavor to make every issue a special one, through everything from exclusives and scoops to themed issues and consumer guides. This particular issue spotlights guitar, but the real theme that emerged organically is collaboration. Besides the cover story on Richard Bona and Mike Stern by David R. Adler, we’ve got profiles on two other musical partnerships. Bill Milkowski talks with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint about their joint project celebrating New Orleans. And Geoffrey Himes deconstructs the creative relationship between guitarists Vernon Reid and Blood Ulmer.
What is it about that one-on-one configuration that can produce such thrilling results? Who better to ask than guitarist Bill Frisell, known for being the consummate collaborator? He’s done projects with nearly all of the above musicians, going back to when he was a young student at Berklee, jamming at all hours with Mike Stern, later recording with Vernon Reid, and most recently working with Elvis Costello on the Burt Bacharach sessions.
Speaking from a hotel room in Los Angeles, Frisell says that collaboration is at the heart of all great music. “That whole process for me is probably the pinnacle. Music for me is about people getting together. Everything I’ve learned has come about in that way—more than any kind of book or listening to a record or anything. When you’re sitting down with another person and this back and forth thing starts happening, it’s like this incredible infusion of energy and knowledge.”
Frisell points to his background on a different instrument as the foundation for his collaborative bent. “I played clarinet all the way through college and I was always playing in larger groups. I also played in woodwind quintets and chamber music ensembles where you’re really trying to blend with the other instruments. That became part of my instincts pretty early on. Even when I started playing rock ’n’ roll guitar I think there was still that trying to blend with other people. That’s one of the most thrilling things—to play a unison note or melody with another person and the two sounds blend into one each other and make another sound.”
An avowed cross-genre artist, Frisell confirms that music provides a bridge for artists from different spheres. “Music is the place where all kinds of barriers come down stylistically or culturally or racially. More than not, when people come together to play that stuff just kinda goes away.” No coincidence then that Frisell works regularly with a wide range of ensembles, from an organ trio with Sam Yahel and Brian Blade to a string group to a jazz quintet or his own group. One of his most frequent band mates is steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who in turn has played with an exhaustive list of rock, jazz and country artists. Frisell notes that in his own bands, “I’m not trying to show anybody everything I know. I’m learning from all those people.” Learning to blend sounds like a good lesson for us all.
Originally published in July/August 2006