CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Bill Frisell Is a Rambler in Quarantine

From his Brooklyn home, the guitarist ponders a locked-down New York, the friends he’s lost to the coronavirus, and the power of instinct

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell (photo: Monica Jane Frisell)

I was just about to bring that up, because I know some of those people were important to you. Lee Konitz, for example. How were you first introduced to his playing?

My guitar teacher in Denver, Dale Bruning—this is 1968, 1969—he would talk about Miles, just giving a quick snapshot of how the history went: Miles playing with Charlie Parker, and then there’s Birth of the Cool, like blam! So that’s where I heard Lee [first], Birth of the Cool. Towards the end of high school I heard that Motion record with Elvin Jones, which is still … I could listen to that over and over and never figure it out. So that’s more than 50 years ago when I first heard him. I first met him pretty early on playing with Paul Motian, because Paul had such a long history with Lee. Then the first time we actually played, that was mind-blowing. We were at the old Knitting Factory with Paul and Joe [Lovano], and Lee said, “Could I play?” Because he always wanted to sit in, always. And we were playing one of Paul’s real abstract songs, I don’t know what the tonal center was or anything, just one of these lines. Lee came up and he was so right in there, it was unbelievable.

Then he asked Paul and Joe and me to play in this Rhapsody thing [Rhapsody II, released by Evidence in 1993]. And then we did a whole tour of Europe with Lee and Joe and Marc Johnson and Paul. There was an amazing gig in Belgium. Joe and Marc couldn’t make it. So the band was Paul, Gary Peacock, Lee Konitz, and Dewey Redman, and that was like, man alive! I don’t think we even had a rehearsal, we just played tunes and it was incredible. And that was the first time I met Gary Peacock. Then Lee and I just started playing together off and on, and he was always so willing. Some of the last stuff, the album with Joey Baron and Gary Peacock [2012’s Enfants Terribles], one story from that was so hilarious—you know, he would just start playing. There was a body of tunes that he would draw from.

People criticized him for that, saying, “Oh, you’re always doing the same tunes.”

Right. Sometimes it was a little hard to figure out which one it was. So, he would play “What Is This Thing Called Love?” There’s two things about that. I spent so long trying to learn his line, “Subconscious-Lee,” [based] on that song, and I was just dying to, some time when he plays that song, just get it. Sometimes he would reference that line and I’d try to jump on it, but it was too late or I didn’t have it under my fingers. I’m talking about years and years of me trying to learn that song. Then finally I was getting it pretty good, and on that gig he started playing it and I actually got right in there with him, and I was so proud of myself. But another thing happened with that tune. It went on through all this different development over 10 or 15 minutes, kind of abstract and really taken apart. We finished the tune and I’m thinking, “Wow, that was awesome.” Gary was playing all this stuff, it was so beautiful. Then Gary leans over to me and he goes, “Hey Bill, what tune was that?” [Laughs] And I said, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” And he goes, “Oh shit! I thought it was ‘Lover Man.’”

That’s fantastic. Well, not to bring the mood down again, but I know there’s at least one other person we lost recently with whom you had quite a good relationship—Hal Willner.

Yeah, that’s just massive. Complete surprise and shock. It’s 40 years, basically. I tried to write down or remember all the stuff we’ve done together and it’s just—the first recording under my own name was on that Nino Rota album [1981’s Amarcord Nino Rota, produced by Willner], which is where we met. No one knew who I was. It was all on the word of my friend D. Sharpe, a drummer who was playing with Carla Bley. Hal needed some little thing to finish off the record, and D. said, “Oh, I know this guy, you should check him out.” And Hal went just on that word alone. Just trust. That’s the way it went for 40 years after that. One thing after another, the most extraordinary opportunities he presented me with. And almost always it was something I wasn’t sure that I was prepared for. He saw something that I wasn’t seeing in myself. It’s like he would open this door and tell me, “Why don’t you go through there and see what happens?” Like he had more confidence in me than I did.

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.