Bill Frisell prefers to communicate through his guitar rather than his mouth. Lately he’s been speaking in tongues with musicians from around the world.
Bill Frisell’s trio is midway through a crackling and fluid set at Yoshi’s, the Bay Area’s premier jazz club in Oakland. They’re pulling a fair number of tunes from Frisell’s most recent power-trio recording, Gone, Just Like a Train, but Frisell, who won’t part with his banana-split ’74 Telecaster all night, gives the music an extra punch of volume and energy. Even his looped and distorted effects, which have been sounding like ambient folk in recent years, shoot like warped and charged particles through the club. A lonely acoustic guitar does not move from the back wall.
Frisell approaches the mike for one of just two or three times all set and says, “I could probably use a haircut, huh?”
He grins and the crowd shouts out styling suggestions for Frisell’s shaggy gray hair, which spills across the top of his head and over his collar: style makeover by tour.
His comment from the stage charms the crowd just as it pokes fun at his reticent and slightly awkward demeanor. It was clear that Frisell-who had hardly even looked out from the stage until then-was just taking a little break to acknowledge the crowd.
The truth is, the guitarist is all charged up, and the trio is feeling it, and he’s anxious to leave the words behind and just get back to the music.
In the morning before Frisell’s Yoshi’s performance, pigeons surround the Jack London monument just outside the Oakland restaurant where the sharp NoCal wind and bright sun conspire to make the city feel fresh and open. Frisell sits at breakfast with a plate of fresh fruit. He stops for a moment and mentions the one element out of place. The city smells like burned rubber, as if all the early morning commuters forgot to disengage their parking brakes before driving away. The scent hangs in the air like one of Frisell’s roguishly dissonant notes, left to linger at the tail of a gorgeous melody. “I think it just burned,” Frisell says, locating what he thinks might be the source and gesturing across the bay toward the black skeleton of what used to be some sort of storage building.
The conversation then turns to other subjects: his childhood in Denver, his life in Seattle, upcoming tours. He is not a natural public speaker or a fluid conversationalist-he often thinks faster than he speaks or grimaces in dissatisfaction at what he seems to consider an inadequately expressed thought. By his own admission, he relates better to people through his instrument than he does through conversation. This isn’t an easy way to get around in the world-unless of course you are a musician of Bill Frisell’s caliber.
But what Frisell most enjoys talking about, and what dominates the conversation, is a single topic: other musicians he digs. The shy Frisell has a difficult time hiding his enthusiasm for new and striking sounds and the musicians who make them.
In an unsystematic and entirely capricious way, Frisell both seeks out and stumbles upon new musicians and new music that, when logistics and interest align, he happily folds into his musical universe. This is how Frisell forms bands and makes music. A few meetings and chance encounters helped Frisell conceive his latest band, the Intercontinentals. The band features musicians from all over the world, and their first recording, The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch), documents Frisell’s first foray outside his American folk-jazz explorations since the mid-’90s.
Bill Frisell holds an odd distinction. He has become one of the most influential jazz guitarists of his generation while for the most part abandoning music that sounds-at least on the surface-anything like jazz. Since the early stages of his career, he exposed interests that ranged well beyond modern postbop. Bits of rock, folk, country, blues and old-timey Appalachian mountain music claimed a share of Frisell’s musical DNA. Then, in the mid-’90s, Frisell tried something new. He literally went to Nashville to make his recording of the same name. This recording did not include a group of trained improvisers slipping country licks into their tunes. Frisell played with real-deal country and bluegrass musicians, and the experience opened him up to a new way of making music.
Two constants would remain: Frisell’s lyrical, famously unpyrotechnic playing style and his quirky compositional fingerprint, a completely idiomatic way of culling elements from multiple genres while seldom settling, even half-way, into any single one. All Frisell needed were capable musicians from any style. If the Nonesuch recording artist liked the sound, he could absorb the players. Therefore, the dark, cartoonish waltzes of 1996’s Quartet featured a trombonist, a trumpeter and a violinist who doubles on tuba, and on 2002’s The Willies he made covers of traditional tunes like “Cluck Old Hen” and “Sugar Baby” with a banjo player and string bassist.
In the last few years, Frisell’s enthusiasm for Malian musicians has spiked. That, in large part, is due to his association with the guitarist and singer Boubacar Traoré. Traoré does not play with the Intercontinentals, but the seed for this band was planted with Frisell and the Malian’s first meeting.
Traoré and his calabash player, Sidiki Camara, attended Frisell’s concert in Seattle a few years ago. “I’d never heard their music or anything,” Frisell says, “and the next day, some friends brought them to dinner. They were like, ‘Oh man, you gotta hear Boubacar play.’ We ate, and he takes this guitar, and I was, like, this far away from him,” Frisell says, indicating about three feet with outstretched hands. “He starts playing, and I freaked out. It was so beautiful. And to hear him singing in that totally intimate way….
“There are a lot of guitar players from Mali I’ve heard and loved, like Ali Farka Toure. There’s so much music from there, and I’ve loved it, and I’ve listened to it, but I’ve never tried to figure it out. When I hear the guitar players, I can’t figure out what they’re doing, and it just stays in this mysterious zone. I never really tried to figure it out, but I love that music. But here, I’m just watching his fingers, and I’m thinking, ‘Huh?’ It sounded like his guitar was in some really bizarre tuning, with things ringing in a weird way. I was sure he had some special tuning system. So then he said, ‘You play something,’ and he hands me the guitar. I thought, ‘What am I going to play?’ I’m thinking, I’m never going to be able to play anything, but of course it was tuned normally.
“Sidiki is sitting there-I don’t think he even had a calabash,” Frisell says of the percussion instruments made of dried, hollowed gourds. “Sometimes he plays just with his hands, and sometimes he has some silverware or just taps on stuff. So someone said, why don’t you play ‘Wildwood Flower,’ this old Carter Family song, and still, Sidiki didn’t speak English. He just motioned for me to go ahead and start playing, so I start playing and . . .I always knew there was this connection with country music, African music, and blues. It’s always been kind of the same for me. [Playing with Sidiki] just fit so perfectly. The whole feel was just amazing to play with him. He lives in Brussels, and from that, whenever I was in Europe with my band, I’d just have him come and play.
“We talk however we can, but its one of those things where we just play and there’s nothing to talk about. We just play, and whatever the circumstances are we know what to do. The first time he played with my band, we didn’t have any rehearsal. We were on tour, we got to Brussels and he showed up. It was totally great.”
Speaking with Frisell, one is left with the impression that his musical encounters provide him with a social outlet he just doesn’t get in any other way. “That’s really the way I relate to people-better than any other way.”
An occasion to put together a new band came when Earshot, a Seattle-based jazz organization, asked Frisell to put together something for its annual festival that would be a little different from what he had been bringing around the last few years. Camara had already been on Frisell’s mind, as well as an oud player he met by chance in a Seattle guitar shop, Christos Govetas, and Brazilian singer-guitarist-percussionist Vinicius Cantuária, with whom Frisell had collaborated, albeit in a somewhat distant way.
It was an overdub situation,” Frisell says of Cantuária’s. “I played on two of his albums. On one album, he just sent me the tape; I played some stuff and sent it back. I met him, and I had a really good feeling with him, but we never got the chance to just sit down and play-really play.”
Without really knowing how it would all work out, Frisell put the band together for the Seattle gig. “These guys were floating around in the back of my head and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe it could be more like they could play with my [regular] band.’ I never thought about sticking them all in the same place [until then]. I thought, maybe we could take all these people and just see if we could play together. It was so haphazard. I really liked each individual, but I didn’t know how they would interact.”
This strategy was not exactly new to Frisell. The guitarist admits that he’s been working like this for some time. “Every album I’ve made recently has been more about the people than any concept,” Frisell says. “I don’t ever have any real concept. What they’re about is the relationship between the people more than anything. Every single one, really. I don’t really think about the songs so much as I think about the chemical reactions, like when I went to Nashville and met all those new guys-seeing what would happen with that. And that’s what this really was.”
On the eponymous recording, Frisell departs from his usual methods in a modest way. Here he works with sounds and playing styles that he had never before incorporated into his music. Govetas’ lilting oud and Cantuária’s limpid vocals most notably set this band apart from earlier Frisell projects. Clearly, however, this is still Frisell’s music. Helping to give the Intercontinentals a Frisellian stamp, the guitarist added two regular collaborators-Greg Leisz on pedal-steel guitar and Jenny Scheinman on violin-to the new recruits. “They’ve been in my world,” Frisell says, “so I was thinking of them as being the glue that holds it together.” And then, of course, there is the music itself, which is immediately recognizable as the guitarist’s. “Boubacar,” the opening tune and one of Frisell’s familiar dedications, begins with a twangy, morning-slow ascending minor triad, a gesture that announces Frisell straight away. The Intercontinentals goes on to unfold in classic Frisell style, swaying from ambling and amiable to mysterious and longing, all in a dense, melodically tight braid of resonant strings and dark themes.
“I didn’t want to just completely go with what each of them did,” Frisell says. “I wanted to force them into a new situation. I didn’t want it to jump from one place to another even though it happens a little-this is an African song, this is a Brazilian song. I wanted something that would have its own sound. I was focused on the players and the sound of their instruments-about what we could do.”
Frisell attributes much of the band’s success to an uncommon combination of attributes. “Everybody in that group has their own music, their own groups, and their own identity, but they’re all willing to just give it up for the greater whole. They’re not all looking to me for a turn [makes an air-guitar motion], so there’s never really any moments where there’s one guy showing off in front of a band. The whole thing is about the way it integrates.”
Though born in Baltimore, the guitarist grew up in Denver. Not the quickly growing microbrew-and-SUV Denver of today, but rather the sleepier, edge of the Great Plains city, before the highways swelled with cars and the suburbs spilled out onto the prairie. More than a few have been tempted to take that little biographical detail and roll it up into a certain short-hand impression of Frisell. After all, his highly evocative music can and often does sound like the soundtrack to a film, most likely a noir western, something with shadows and canyons, filled with menace, loss and hoedowns.
“If I say Colorado, they say cowboy,” Frisell says. “People just put a lot of stuff on the wide-open spaces. I grew up in a city, and it was just regular Middle America. Probably just like any other place.”
Frisell has been around long enough to know that these impressions will change, when it comes to his music. “It’s not that big a deal,” he says. “I’ve gone through, well, I haven’t gone through these periods. It’s more like I’ve been through places where people have put me. I recorded with ECM, and then I was the ECM guy. I worked with Zorn, and then I was the Downtown guy. I went to Nashville, and then I was the Americana guy. Now I have a new record with guys from all over the world, so maybe I’ll be the world music guy.”
Frisell only hopes that his listeners haven’t closed the lid on his music. “I’m just happy that [my music] evokes anything. The only thing that really bothers me is when I get pushed into a box. I’m happy that people see something, that they see some kind of image. That’s what music is supposed to do.”
Frisell has taken his musical conception so far from rim-shots and bebop scales that it’s easy to forget that he once was, as he describes himself, a jazz purist. But as music like Frisell’s points out very clearly, you don’t have to keep the trappings of jazz to be a jazzman. Some of the most notable jazz players in history didn’t just perfect an idiom, they fashioned a new one. They began where jazz was and tried to take it somewhere else. Frisell mentions a passage from Paul Bley’s book, Stopping Time. In this particular passage, Bley talks about how he played with Charles Mingus and quite a few other major players of the time, and he had decoded some of their music but was struggling with his next step. What could he do with all this music? Where could he take it? This is the way Frisell thinks about jazz, and it’s also why, among all the ways to describe his music, why this word might be his favorite.
“I like that word jazz better than all those other words, like Downtown, ECM, Americana,” says Frisell, who still feels a deep connection to melodic improvisers like Monk or Rollins. “I still feel like deep down inside, like that’s what I am, more than anything, even though maybe on the surface, other people don’t perceive it that way. You can take the sheen around the edge and say, ‘Oh, that’s country or that’s rock-you sort of take all those styles, and you can call it something based on what style you think it is, but for me, jazz is not a style, it’s a way that music works. It has nothing to do with fashion. The most formative period in my life was when I was just getting out of high school and I’m entered into this world-I’m finding out about Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans and Miles Davis. I heard these people play, and I bought all their records. I tried to imagine what they might be thinking and that’s formed the way I make music. That’s the way it still works. Charlie Parker would play a popular song if he heard it on the radio. Sonny would play any kind of show tune that was floating around and try to transform it into something. I just feel like I’m trying to do the same thing. A lot of people say that what I do is not jazz. ‘Oh, this is country or dah-dah-dah.’ I really don’t care what you call it, but I don’t mind if someone wants to call it jazz because I think jazz is a good thing.”
Back at the mike one last time, Frisell announces his drummer, Kenny Wollesen, by his nickname, the Jazz Eagle. The shaggy-headed kit crasher looks like he could use a haircut himself. Frisell declines to announce the nickname by which his bassist, Viktor Krauss, goes. “I heard there were children in the audience,” he says, deadpan. Frisell’s trio has just concluded a set edged with scratching distortion and packed with tart, sharply played chords. The band only spared a few quiet moments for a sensitive rendition of “Shenandoah.” Unable to reel in his smile, Frisell turns back to his bandmates, who have been giving him the right measure of broad-stroke beat and delicacy all night.
For an encore, the band surprises everyone with a cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Frisell takes his time, winding and wending his way into the melody. The tune would be unrecognizable at the start if not for the familiar bass line, unassumingly played by Krauss.
After the show, Peter Williams, the artistic director for Yoshi’s, is practically hopping and says, “It’s so great to have the extroverted Bill Frisell!”
“I just bought that Monk Plays Duke Ellington record. And also this Sam Rivers album that I used to have, Fuchsia Swing Song-that was a record I used to listen to all the time, but I didn’t have it anymore. I’ve gotten into a lot of African music lately. I’ve always kind of liked bluegrass music, though I’ve never really tried to figure it out. When my parents moved to North Carolina, I got the chance to hear a bunch of people play it down there. I did that Nashville album with guys who knew how to play it, and I didn’t know how to play it. Thank God I didn’t try to play it. It would have been a mess.
“Blind Willie Johnson. Robert Johnson. I’ve actually been listening to a lot more guitar players in the last few years than I used to. Getting into jazz, I was only listening to sax players, trumpeters, pianists, drummers. That and Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney. But getting into this old-timey stuff, there’s a lot more guitar going on in that music.
I really like this bluegrass stuff, but the pre-bluegrass stuff, it’s more slowed-down. Bill Monroe-that’s great. Doc Watson, I just love him. Roscoe Holcomb is someone I’ve just discovered in the last few years. That guy-I just love his music, especially on the Smithsonian label.”
“When I’m playing, especially in the last few years, it’s pretty much been just the guitar and the amp. I’ve been more and more attracted to that. The Telecaster-this particular one-its really transparent, a lot of highs and lows. It’s a classic Telecaster sound, and I just use the sound of that guitar straight into the amp. My touring guitar is a ’74 Telecaster. I have another at home, which is a ’66. It’s almost exactly the same guitar but worth twice as much money,” he laughs. “This one, I’m not quite as afraid to carry it.
“At home and on the Intercontinentals recording the amps I use mostly are: I have two amps made by a guy named Jack Anderson from Gig Harbor, Washington; one with one 12-inch speaker and one with two 10-inch speakers. An old late ’50s, early ’60s Gibson Explorer with one 10-inch speaker. And a THD Univalve amp with one 10-inch speaker.
“I use D’Addario XL110 strings on my electrics, and EXP coated medium gauge on my acoustics.”
Frisell’s effects include an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Boss DD-3 digital delay, a DigiTech DigiDelay, a Digi-Tech 8-second delay, a Line 6 Delay Modeler, a Lexicon MPX110 multi-effects-reverb unit and a Lexicon LXP1. He uses an Intellitouch tuner.