Bill Frisell: The Quiet American

In a new documentary and solo-guitar album, Bill Frisell features his trademark sense of deceptive simplicity

Bill Frisell (photo by Monica Jane Frisell)

Midway through Emma Franz’s charming but weirdly structured documentary Bill Frisell: A Portrait, the director is following the guitarist with a camera as he walks down 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village. As they get to the corner of 8th Street, Frisell takes note of the passersby who are staring at him quizzically, wondering if he might be, you know, famous or something. “Little do they know,” he confides to Franz with a somewhat embarrassed grin, “I’m one of them.”

And yet he’s not, quite. At this point, it’s beyond argument that Frisell is one of the leading jazz guitarists of his generation; given that his generation also included John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny and John Scofield, that’s not a bad claim to fame. It’s also indisputable that his influence on music of multiple genres over the past 35 years has been enormous. The only big question now is where he stands among the all-time greats. Franz clearly believes that he deserves a prime spot in the pantheon (a belief I share), and she makes a decent case for that, but not in the most compelling way.

The main problem is that the focus of her inquiries is such a shy, unassuming guy. Frisell spends a lot of time talking about how difficult it is for him to talk about what he does, never a recipe for excitement in a film. (Key line: “It seems like the best things I do are the things I do before I figure out what they actually are.”) He comes across as a kind of savant who goes through life and music wide-eyed and naïve. Perhaps this characterization is true, but it seems a little too simple.

Luckily, other people are able to explain his significance with more acuity on camera, including now-departed mentors and colleagues Abercrombie, Jim Hall and Paul Motian. A few anecdotes stand out, particularly Joey Baron’s long, hilarious retelling of how he and Frisell got their first duo gig at New York’s Jewish Guild for the Blind. Interviews with Frisell’s wife, Carole d’Inverno, and his live-sound engineer of more than 20 years, Claudia Engelhart, make his loyal, caring nature abundantly clear. And there’s wonderful footage of him playing in diverse situations (although a brief, typically abrasive snippet from a Naked City performance made me wish the movie featured more clips from the ’80s and ’90s). The best moment of the bunch comes from the last Village Vanguard run by the epochal trio with Motian and Joe Lovano: Frisell taps on an effects pedal that takes his guitar line down an octave into bass territory, and Lovano cries out in pure joy.

There are many similar bliss-inducing moments on Music IS (OKeh/Sony), Frisell’s first solo album in 18 years. Given his heavy use of looping devices, the term “solo” means something different here than it ordinarily might. Take, for example, the blues “Winslow Homer,” which starts off with unaccompanied electric guitar, played in typical Frisellian style—rustic yet hip, with lots of unexpected pauses, dissonant tritones and chucklesome string bends—then suddenly blossoms into something much bigger, revealing several more beautifully harmonized parts.

Frisell has become such a master at playing with effects units that whatever he does with them sounds natural. Unless, of course, he doesn’t want it to, as on the brief “Think About It,” where his gnarly single-note lines suddenly go into reverse midway through. Perhaps the best classification for gorgeous meditations like “Change in the Air” and “What Do You Want?” is ambient—not in the boring aural-wallpaper sense but in the quietly emotional so-drenched-with-atmosphere-you-almost-can’t-believe-it’s-real sense.

All 16 tracks on Music IS are originals, new and vintage. One chestnut, “Rambler,” originally the title track of Frisell’s second ECM disc in 1985, gets two versions. The first, the album’s longest track at six and a half minutes, is a space-age treatment with an oddly processed blip-and-bleep backdrop. The second is a short, sweet excursion into rubato C&W, with a closing homage to the rhythm-guitar style of Mother Maybelle Carter. Between the two, you get some sense of Frisell’s enviably broad musical range. But only some. For, like another great American, Walt Whitman, Bill Frisell contains multitudes.

Image by Monica Jane Frisell

Watch a trailer for Emma Franz’s film Bill Frisell: A Portrait

Read guitarist Anthony Wilson’s Artist’s Choice playlist of Bill Frisell’s music