Bill Frisell and Jim Hall: Free Stylists

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Jim Hall and Bill Frisell
By Monica Frisell
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Studio floor
By Monica Frisell
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Jim Hall at Sear Sound, New York; September 9, 2008
By Monica Frisell
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Jim Hall (left) and Bill Frisell track duets at Tony Scherr's home studio
By Monica Frisell

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At ArtistShare.com, the Web site for the fan-funded record “label” started by musician Brian Camelio in 2000, there are posted video clips of guitarists Jim Hall and Bill Frisell in duet. In one clip, Hall, then 76 and Frisell’s senior by more than 20 years, tells a story about a robbery that occurred at the Village Vanguard while he was playing; Frisell and Camelio, the latter of whom can be heard but not seen, crack up in disbelief.

The conversation is winsome and intimate, and for fans of jazz guitar, it’s pretty priceless stuff. Another clip worth repeat viewings is titled “Jim and Bill play the blues.” Given the format and the instrument, it has potential for myriad clichés, all of which the pair dodges: Harmonically it seems more Jimmy Giuffre than Jimmy Reed, and the interplay is so mingled that roles of lead and accompaniment are difficult to discern. Paying even closer attention to the footage yields a certain curiosity: Where are they?

Seated so close together they could shake hands, on what looks like a futon from a college apartment, the two men sit in front of music stands, Hall holding his beloved Sadowsky archtop, Frisell with one of his trusty Telecasters. The far corner is jam-packed with junk.

What’s a guy like Jim Hall, who has performed original work with the help of metropolitan symphonies, doing in a place like this?

Recording Hemispheres (ArtistShare) it turns out, a double-CD and digital download that, at times, stands up admirably to some of Hall’s heyday duets recordings. Its two discs are at once complementary and contrasting: one a guitar-duo record captured during laidback sessions at what is perhaps New York’s homiest studio; the other, a quartet set, banged out like a ’50s Prestige record. All of the music flatters both guitarists who, as project producer Camelio points out, “share a general sensibility, where they don’t let the instrument get in the way.” In between sessions for the CDs is another narrative: How Hall, rehabilitating after back surgery, pushed through his ailments to finish the project. “It was nothing short of a miracle,” says Camelio.

In a New York Times review of Hemispheres, critic Ben Ratliff dubbed Frisell one of Hall’s “stylistic children.” It’s an accurate assessment, and you might go one further and say that Frisell is, for his generation of jazz-guitar heroes, Hall’s most appropriate analogy. That fact is made even plainer if you survey Frisell’s colleagues, a group of baby-boomers indebted to both jazz and the pop music of the ’60s and ’70s that changed them indelibly.

All of the Big Three have managed to build stylistic trademarks while gracefully matching postbop with diverse influences. John Scofield has relied on fusion sonics, funk grooves and jam-band ethos; Pat Metheny on folkie sensitivity and classical pretense. Frisell, while maintaining jazz as his prism, is the most chameleonic by far: a lover of Americana, rock, blues, the avant-garde and world music, whose albums battle placement behind any of those dividers.

Arguably more than any other guitarist currently working in improvised music, Frisell’s sound is instantly identifiable. In timbre he’s internalized the surf music he heard as a kid. His tone is overwhelmed with reverb and delay, and he’s developed the tic of bending the neck after striking a note or chord, in an effort to move those pitches into an unattainable perfect tuning. Complementing those serene, liquid tone colors is his physical attack, wherein economy is paramount and looping devices are constantly tweaked for purposes of orchestration and atmosphere rather than theatrics. (Both Frisell and Hall have adopted the peculiar practice of operating guitar foot pedals with their hands.)

Hall, whose age and tastes have granted him a style unconcerned with pop timbres or techniques—he reportedly hadn’t heard Bob Dylan’s original “Masters of War” when Frisell suggested they play it on Hemispheres—is nevertheless one of jazz-guitar’s great modernists: His historical sideman recordings with Chico Hamilton, Sonny Rollins and Giuffre prove it, as do his duo albums with Bill Evans, his penchant for melodic free-improv, and his ambitious compositional work, which often reflects training in and love for classical music.

Of the anti-musical vices available to him and often exploited by guitarists—say, a materialistic obsession with the instrument itself and the persistent willingness to overplay—he seems to subscribe to none. “Since I’ve met Jim, he’s lived in the same apartment, and basically he plays one guitar,” says Frisell, who speaks in slow, methodical fits and starts. “He’s had three guitars since I’ve known him. But with each one he just plays one and basically plays it until he wears it out.” Six years ago in the Village Voice, the critic Gary Giddins wrote, “In escaping the guitar player’s rut of playing all the notes all the time, Hall established texture, timbre, and voicing as the equals of linear phrasing.” Hall is also an advocate for deep listening: “Listen and react” is a phrase he repeated no less than a half-dozen times during our interview.

To say it directly, Jim Hall oozes selfless musicality, something he was kind enough to pass along to a young guitar student he met while gigging in Denver.

“He talked a lot about other instruments and music in general,” Frisell says of a series of lessons he took with Hall in the early ’70s. “It wasn’t just about the guitar. … [It was about] using the guitar as a means to get at whatever music you’re hearing in your head, which could be a whole orchestra. It’s your imagination. So not just listening to guitar players, but listening to saxophone, piano, banjo and every other thing.”

As a teenager in Colorado in the late ’60s, Frisell was drawn to jazz guitar via Wes Montgomery and heard some Kenny Burrell, but awoke to new possibilities when his guitar instructor, Dale Bruning, gave him the 1966 Evans/Hall collaboration Intermodulation. Says Frisell, “[Bruning] said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re gonna get this right away, but listen to it a little bit and see what you think. … Maybe it’s not as fast or flashy.'”

Even if it lacked acrobatics, Frisell was hooked: “It didn’t take long before it absolutely flipped me out.”

Shortly thereafter, around 1970, Hall performed at a small club in Denver, with Bruning accompanying on bass and, on several duets, guitar. Astounded by the performance, Frisell met Hall after the gig, and was equally impressed with his humility. That meeting would begin a nearly four-decade-long relationship that would move from one-sided admiration into mutual respect and, finally, stunning collaboration.

In 1972, in between stints at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Frisell was staying with his parents, who had moved to New Jersey. After a set at the now-defunct venue The Guitar in New York, Frisell asked Hall for lessons and, every week for the following two months, studied with his hero.

Frisell remembers those lessons, which included Bach sonatas and Sonny Rollins solos, with impressive acuity: “The thing that just blew my mind was he wanted to play a tune, and I think we played ‘Stella by Starlight.’ I could barely get through the tune at that point, but he had that effect on me, and I think he has that on everyone he plays with, where he just included me in the thing. He wasn’t playing at me, he was playing with me, and making me sound good, and made me feel like, ‘Wow! I’m sounding good here, you know?’ [laughs]

“And I think that’s one of the qualities that permeates everything he does. He listens to the whole situation and it’s not just about him; it’s about making the whole music around him as good as it can possibly be.”

Hall would have a similar revelation about Frisell, though it wouldn’t take place until years later, after the younger guitarist had moved to New York and become ingrained in the scene. “He was in this great trio, it’s still around, with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian,” remembers Hall, “and I went to hear them at the Village Vanguard. I was just knocked out. … I could hear how different Bill sounded.”

That bass-less trio would greatly amplify Frisell’s profile and help establish him as an important new figure in jazz guitar and downtown music—a timid innovator, quick to smile and as versatile as he was idiosyncratic. His playing reflected the sort of individuality Hall sought to impart through his teaching. “I hope I just encouraged [Bill] to find his own voice, which is kind of my philosophy about everything,” says Hall. “In fact, that’s kind of what happened to me. You know, I was hearing all these marvelous guitar players. Tal Farlow was a good friend, Jimmy Raney, Wes Montgomery. Finally I realized, if I practice every second for the rest of my life I’ll never be able to do that. So I said, ‘Dummy! Find yourself!’ … Find Bill Frisell.”

The pair finally committed its first notes to record on Hall’s 1995 Telarc outing Dialogues, playing the set’s first two numbers in a quartet with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Andy Watson. On that album—a willful attempt to combine Hall with unlikely comrades, among them chorus-toting bopper Mike Stern—Frisell and Hall sound nimble and in-step, motoring through angled unison lines on Hall’s “Frisell Frazzle” and encircling one other on the tender “Simple Things.” The collaborations indicated great promise that wouldn’t be fulfilled for well over a decade.

“It was very much a home recording. There are many, many albums that have come out of this house. And it’s where I live,” says Tony Scherr, the musical multi-tasker (he’s a singer-songwriter, a member of Sex Mob and a longtime bassist to Frisell) who recorded the overdub-free guitar duets that make up Disc 1 of Hemispheres. He’s speaking about his confined yet comfy studio, outfitted with old but “solid” analog gear and located in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood.

He continues: “There’s a big room and a smaller room. They were in the bigger room, except it was totally crammed with stuff at that point. … But it’s interesting that Brian Camelio, who was the producer, and Jim and Bill and Bill’s daughter, Monica, [who shot photos], were all in such close quarters. We were like right on top of each other.”

Camelio maintains that this was all part of the plan. “It was an extremely, extremely intimate situation. And we’re all good friends,” he says. “The clock wouldn’t be running. We’d play some music, then we’d go out and have a nice lunch, then we’d kind of stroll back and make some coffee and play some more.

“It reminded me more of when I was growing up, just on a summer afternoon, hanging out with my friends. That’s kind of what I wanted to achieve. That’s one of the reasons I got Tony involved. Because Tony, everything he does sort of feels like that.”

“I don’t know much,” offers Scherr, “but to me, that’s how you get a recording. You hang out a bit and stop worrying about it, like, ‘We’ve got this chart up that says we’ve gotta get verse three and the pre-chorus done, blah, blah, blah.’ I’ve done a lot of that, and that’s cool. But the stuff I really love that’s happened here, I’ve noticed that it’s basically because people get comfortable.”

Whatever the philosophy was, it worked. (Even Hall, who came up recording in New York’s überprofessional studio scene, adjusted well to the lax program. “This is a nice way to spend a day,” Scherr recalls him saying.) In five different sessions, spread out between July and December 2007, Scherr captured around six hours of remarkable duo material, which Camelio edited down to album length after receiving input from the guitarists. The music is wide-ranging but consistently inventive: There’s a propulsive “Bags’ Groove” that reminds us how deeply percussive Hall can be as a rhythm player; a pensive interpretation of Dylan’s “Masters of War” (picked by Frisell for peace-advocate Hall); a postmodern blues titled “Beijing Blues”; a cozy ode to Frisell’s daughter, “Monica Jane”; Frisell’s gorgeous, waltzing “Family”; and a read of “All Across the City” that moves away from the Evans/Hall rendition into dreamier abstraction.

The latter tune, says Frisell, was “[one of the] first that I heard [Jim] play that inspired me to just want to spend my life playing music. So it was kind of a selfish thing on my part, I guess, to play those songs with him.” Quick to shield himself from suggestions that there could be an element of vanity at play, he continues: “I don’t think there was a lot of nostalgia happening in what we were doing. It was really more happening then.”

If Hall’s 1999 collaboration with Pat Metheny was striking in its ability to highlight each player’s uniqueness, the Frisell duets stun by doing the opposite. The sessions are marked by profoundly compassionate interplay and a quietude that entrances the listener but caused Scherr to panic. “Bill was playing a solidbody electric guitar through two amps,” he remembers, “but he had them down so soft. There was a room mic between them … and Jim was actually winning. He was louder than Bill, with just his acoustic guitar. So it’s got some noise on it, that record.” Despite some character-adding tape hiss and an amateurish clunk on one track, the sound isn’t problematic. As for the varying guitar tones, they’re almost essential for untangling each player’s lines; listen for Hall’s electric and acoustic archtop tones and Frisell’s Telecaster—a model of guitar he, Stern and Canadian Ed Bickert have helped legitimize as a jazz instrument.

The interaction is most revealing on two tracks where the duo explores the sort of melodic free improvisation that begins with Hall’s late colleague Jimmy Giuffre. On the opening “Throughout,” Frisell concocts a post-rock-ish sonic backdrop with loops and delay, over which Hall tunefully noodles. (An album favorite of Bob Brookmeyer, says Hall.) On “Migration,” an invitation to deep listening that extends well over 15 minutes, Frisell sets up tense electronic atmosphere for four and a half minutes before Hall plucks a note. It was a moment that reinforced Hall’s unofficial motto of “listen and react.”

“I start going,” Frisell recalls, “and Jim is just sitting there, his head bowed, and he kept laughing and smiling but he wasn’t playing. … After awhile I was like, ‘Man, come on, when are you gonna start playing?’ [laughs] He just waited until the right moment. He was listening so hard.”

When asked why his collaborations with Frisell are so effective, Hall returns the favor. “I have been around and played with people who I felt weren’t paying any attention to what I did,” he says. “Bill is just the opposite.”

After the duo sessions wrapped in December 2007, pressure from Nonesuch Records, which was releasing Frisell’s History, Mystery in May, moved Hemispheres’ release date back to September ’08. The project was originally to be only the duo record, but, as Camelio recalls, “We sat down and listened to this stuff, and we thought, Man, wouldn’t it be great if we could get Joey [Baron] and Scott [Colley] on this?” The seeds for a quartet component were sown.

Unfortunately, Hall was dealing with major health issues. In early February 2008, he experienced intense back pain and went in for an MRI. The diagnosis wasn’t good: fractured vertebrae with infection. After spending three months in the hospital and undergoing surgery, he began rehabilitation at home.

Despite his wounded state, Hall was game for the quartet session, to take place in early September. “In a way,” says Camelio, “that really gave Jim something to focus on for recovery. He said, ‘Can we get this together?’ And I said, ‘We’re supposed to release the CD in September!’ But I got it together, and it was amazing. Jim, basically, could barely walk, and he was in a lot of pain. But he made it into the studio and kicked ass.”

“It was so inspiring,” Frisell adds. “He’d been through so much. … and then just to see him; as soon as he put his hands on the guitar it was like this power was there in full force.”

(Hall incurred another infection a few weeks after the quartet session and was hospitalized for another month, followed by additional out-patient care and rehab. As of this writing, he is slated to return to performance on March 20 at the Library of Congress.)

The quartet recordings were tracked at Sear Sound in New York for a November release, and feature longtime Hall bassist Colley and drummer Baron, who’s gigged and recorded with Hall and done so more extensively with Frisell, in the guitarist’s own bands and in John Zorn’s visionary Naked City. There are fewer quirks on the combo disc and more familiar tunes, including the Billy Strayhorn melody “Chelsea Bridge”; the Ellington line “In a Sentimental Mood”; “My Funny Valentine,” a nod to the Evans/Hall classic Undercurrent; and Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two.” But it isn’t all standbys: There’s a twitchy group improvisation called “Card Tricks,” sketched out by Hall and dedicated to Baron. And Hall’s “Owed to Freddie Green”—“I thought that [title] was cute,” he says—is a “Rhythm” changes exercise that Colley, Hall and Frisell play in different keys simultaneously.

Throughout, the band maintains the intimate appeal of Disc 1’s duo sessions, despite the fact that the entire record was tracked in one day and there was far less sifting to be done. As Camelio explains, “We basically used everything we recorded.” Baron, in particular, is marvelously restrained, delicately back-grounding “Sentimental Mood” with brushes and pattering his cymbals with great understatement on “Sonnymoon.”

As Hall remembers, it took two tries to get it right. After recording one day at a “huge studio out in Brooklyn,” he says, “Brian found us another studio, where I could reach out and touch one of Joey Baron’s cymbals if I wanted to.

“And Bill Frisell was just a few feet [away], right in front of me. So that helps a lot.”

Originally published in April 2009

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