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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

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Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell (photo: Monica Jane Frisell)

I do want to ask about the new album. When did you record it? In light of everything that’s going on now, some of the programming seems uncannily chosen. But I imagine that was a coincidence.

We recorded it last fall, and the tunes were appropriate then too. I was going to say that I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it, but I am. There’s songs that just resonate with you. Maybe I don’t talk about it so much, but when I play … Like, there was a time I was playing [Sam Cooke’s] “A Change Is Gonna Come” almost every night. And I remember a little story about Rudy and this trio. The very first time Rudy played in my band, it was a trio with Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr, normally. Kenny couldn’t do the gig, so I called Rudy to sub. We had no rehearsal—we still have never had a rehearsal after all these years, he’s never looked at one piece of music—but what really got me on that gig, aside from the fact that it just felt like he’d been playing all the music his whole life, [was that] we played “A Change Is Gonna Come” and I looked over at him and I could see his mouth. It was saying the words as I was playing the melody. That told me so much about the way he hears. He’s not playing the drums, he’s playing the music. It’s always like that with him.

But that was one of those songs. There’s always something happening in them—whatever it is, “A Change Is Gonna Come” or “Masters of War” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” or “Hard Times” by Stephen Foster—that song is more than 150 years old, and it’s like you could’ve written it today.

You’ve reached a point in your playing where the effects you use seem to be a natural extension of the guitar’s voice, which in turn is the extension of your fingers and your brain. It all seems so seamless. I imagine, you being the person actually doing it and not the observer, that it doesn’t feel that way to you. Or does it?

It’s definitely an instinctual thing. It is an extension of … maybe not my fingers, but my imagination for sure. I mean, I’ve been using the same thing for quite a while now. It started in the ‘80s, I guess, with this Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay. My friend Robert Quine had one right when they first came out and he showed it to me, and it was like this thing was made for me. It was immediate, my bonding with it. Whatever I was wanting, wishing—it was like I was waiting for that. And since then, those [pedals] have sort of faded away, they broke or you can’t get them fixed; then I had a couple of other ones, and now this Line 6 [DL4] Delay Modeler. In some ways, it’s much more limited than [the Electro-Harmonix], but it’s just so simple. I don’t have to think about anything. An idea can extend a little further than what you can do with your hands. It can also surprise you because you’re not always sure what it’s going to do. And I’m looking for that in the music, I want something to happen that’s like, “What? Oh wait! Shit!” and can just suddenly throw you off into another world that you have to deal with. The last thing I want is some device that memorizes something that I’ve figured out before.

You know, I went through all this, in school, playing clarinet in the band and orchestra, and I had all this formal training, but the guitar was always completely—I didn’t know what notes I was playing, it was a whole other world. Then later on, when I got more serious about it, I got a teacher, and then I went to Berklee. I always come back to things I heard Sonny Rollins say. Somebody asked him, “What do you think when you’re playing?” and he said, “You can’t think. The music is happening too fast.” I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, “If you’re in the music, you can’t be thinking about it.”

Of the many, many records that you’ve played on, one of my absolute favorites is the Power Tools album [Strange Meeting, 1987]. I’ve always wanted to ask you how that came together. It was all live to two-track tape, right?

Oh yeah, it was! I forgot about that. We did it at Radio City Music Hall, which was incredible. We did tons of [sessions there]—the first recordings I did with [John] Zorn were all up in there. Talk about New York! You go in this back way and it was on one of the upper floors, this old recording studio that was slightly cheap—I guess that’s how we got it—because it hadn’t been totally maintained, it had been sort of just left. There was stuff in there, an old glockenspiel or something in the corner. An incredible room. I’m thinking of the record I did with Vernon Reid…

Smash and Scatteration, in ’85?

Yeah, David Breskin produced that. I think that actually started out as something else, but it ended up with just me and Vernon. Vernon was very close with [Power Tools drummer] Ronald Shannon Jackson, Vernon was playing in [Jackson’s band] the Decoding Society, and then David had that idea. Was [Power Tools bassist] Mel[vin Gibbs] in the Decoding Society?

Indeed he was.

Right. Anyway, I was a big fan of that. Basically, it was David’s idea to put us together. He had this vision, some sort of thing in his imagination.

Like Hal Willner.

Yeah. So that’s how that happened. Then, one other thing to tie it into this new record—on Valentine there’s a song called “Winter Always Turns to Spring.”

Which you first recorded solo on Ghost Town in 1999.

So, to get dark again, right around the time of Nashville [1997], my father passed away. I was recording with Marc Johnson and Pat Metheny and Joey Baron, and we were in the Power Station [in New York]. It’s late at night, we’ve just finished the album, Joey and I had to travel to San Francisco the next day to do a duet concert, and I get a phone call on the payphone that my father just died. I have to leave in three hours to go to San Francisco. I’m devastated, but I had to go. So I get to San Francisco and I see David Breskin there, and he gives me this telegram that Ronald Shannon Jackson had sent him years before. David’s father had passed away, and Ronald Shannon Jackson gave him a telegram that said, “Winter always turns to spring. Shannon.” This yellow telegram. I still have it, I carry it right by my passport, it’s been there ever since. I just looked at it yesterday.

We hadn’t been playing that [tune] on a gig or anything, we just played it at the studio. I hadn’t played it since Ghost Town, I guess. It was sort of an afterthought, such a simple little thing. But the title seemed appropriate.

I know you’re playing a lot right now. What about listening?

Not a lot. I thought I would be. I was listening to some Beethoven string quartets.

Early, late, middle?

This was kind of late and, again, this is just stuff I’ll occasionally come back to. It’s like, when am I ever going to figure this out? I even took a class way back in school on the Beethoven string quartets. For me to actually learn and understand that stuff—if I had another 200 years, I would.

The late ones are especially challenging.

But even the early ones! The older I get, music that I thought was predictable or tonal, like Mozart … I mean, I used to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, but as years go by it’s like, “Wait a minute, it just modulated to this!” These layers keep peeling away. Same thing with those early Beethoven string quartets, there’s this unbelievable dissonance that I didn’t even hear in the beginning. Music. What a trip it is. 

Lookout for Gear

Bill Frisell’s guitar collection is far too extensive to delve into here, so we’ll stick with what he used on Valentine. Namely, one of his favorite axes, a custom Telecaster-style electric made by JW Black, going into two amplifiers—a vintage Gibson GA-18 and a Carr Mercury—through a small sampling of effects pedals: Line 6’s DL4 Delay Modeler, Strymon’s Flint reverb/tremolo, Electro-Harmonix’s Freeze sound retainer, and an Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer. Strings are D’Addario EXL115s (.011-.049) and picks are Dunlop 412P Tortex Sharp (.88mm).

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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.