When Bill Frisell answers my FaceTime beep, the amount of hair I see through the laptop screen is more significant than I was expecting. He’s been working on a quarantine beard, and he doesn’t seem entirely happy about it. “I don’t know, it’s terrible,” he confesses. “A couple of days into it, I didn’t shave and I just said, ‘Fuck it. No one’s going to see me.’ But then it seems like more people are seeing me.”
Indeed they are, via the streaming events that have grown up like kudzu on the internet ever since the COVID-19 pandemic spread to America. Among them: Blue Note at Home and the Live from Our Living Rooms festival. Frisell describes his slot in the latter as “so traumatic. I spent all day—because I just don’t have all this together with the phones and stuff—trying to get everything hooked up, figuring out how to use a microphone and all this. In the end nothing worked. I just rely on other people to do everything for me,” he says with an apologetic grin, “and now they’re all locked away somewhere.”
The justly lauded guitarist is himself locked away in his Brooklyn house these days, waiting (as we all are) for something to break. One way or another, though, he’ll soon have a new album to promote, his 38th as a leader and his second for Blue Note Records: Valentine. Cut with his regular trio mates Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, it’s a typical Frisellian mix of down-home and moody, abstract and endearingly direct. And in a move that’s tailormade for our current days of lockdown, fear, and polarized realities, the album draws to a spirited close with touching renditions of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “We Shall Overcome.”
My original plan for this interview, many months ago, was to turn it into a Bright Moments feature, with Frisell acting as guide through a selected tour of his gem-studded four-decade back catalog, from Paul Motian’s Psalm right up through Valentine. But that was PC (Pre-Coronavirus). By the time our chat actually rolled around, I’d decided that a different strategy was called for: We should just talk. And I’m glad we did.
JazzTimes: So how are you keeping occupied during all this?
BILL FRISELL: Going to my guitar and just playing my guitar. I don’t have anything to prepare for, no gig. It’s just pure. I’ll start playing, and that’s been kind of amazing, realizing after all this time that I still love this thing. My whole life it’s been what saved me, and it’s what’s saving me right now. As soon as I wake up I grab it and whatever, or I’ll try to write some little thing. But it takes me out of all the doom-and-gloom stuff.
You’re not practicing anything in particular, just going stream-of-consciousness?
Yeah, or I can go off on some tangent—obsess over getting as many Sonny Rollins songs all together in one place that I can find. I found a song that I’d played a long time ago and then I started checking it out: “Oh shit, I’ve been playing this wrong all this time.” Just getting into this obsessive-compulsive thing with songs. On Live from Our Living Rooms, I wanted to play “New York, New York,” so I started listening to that, listening to Frank Sinatra, checking out the way he was placing the melody and then playing it over and over and over and over. Normally there’s a gig and I’d learn a tune. But [now] there’s no limit. I’ve spent the whole day just playing the same tune over and over again. So that’s been kind of great.
What was the last “normal” professional engagement that you had?
I was on tour with the Harmony group [the quartet featuring singer Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts, and singer/guitarist/bassist Luke Bergman that played on Frisell’s 2019 album of the same name], early in March on the West Coast. When we got to Seattle, it was like, “Wait a minute.” Half the audience didn’t show up. That’s when I noticed that something was going on, like, for real. Then a couple of days later we got home and I was supposed to leave on a tour to Europe with Chris Potter, and then everything just stopped. I feel lucky that I got home with my wife—other people got stranded or are separated from their families.
How are you feeling about life in general at this point? Optimistic? Pessimistic? Trying to just stay on an even keel?
Trying to stay even. That’s what’s been really a challenge. You have to reassess everything. We moved back to New York about three years ago now [after nearly 30 years in Seattle], and it was like, “Man, we’re back home! This is the greatest thing! We’re right by the train and I can just get on the train and go to wherever, the Metropolitan Museum, or hear all this music.” And now … I can’t go to a museum anymore. I can’t get into town because I don’t want to get on the train. So I’m in this house way out in Brooklyn, which is awesome. But then how long can we stay? All the practical aspects—we have a little bit of savings, and that’s going away. The stuff that goes through my mind, I don’t even want to tell you. It’s like, what if everybody just bails out on New York? I don’t know.
So many of the things that have made it desirable to be in New York are now the things you have to call into question most—the subways and buses, the museums, the venues.
I know people say, “Oh, the subway is such a drag!” But I’m like, “What are you talking about? This is like a miracle! I don’t have to have a car.” In Seattle, I was just sitting in my car all the time with nothing on the radio and it was like, “Man.” Here it’s like, within a few minutes you can [get somewhere]. But I haven’t gotten on the subway for about six weeks now. And I’m sorry, but there are a lot of people dying all around us.