Prolific, eclectic Frisell takes stage in Carbondale
July 28, 2011
CARBONDALE – For a change, Bill Frisell is pleased with the pace at which his music is moving.
Which is not to suggest that Frisell, a guitarist, is generally unhappy with the rotation of drummers he employs, and the beat they keep. One imagines that the patient tempos that mark his music are just fine with him; Frisell seems more interested in depth and clarity than speed. Nor is Frisell frustrated with the rate at which musical ideas come to him. Quite the opposite. Even the instant-information age can’t keep up with his output; the discography on Frisell’s Wikipedia page lists the 14 albums released since 2000, but overlooks the pair of albums he has already put out this year.
What Frisell is pleased with is that the recording industry seems to be catching up to him. He just received word from his label that “All We Are Saying,” his album of the music of John Lennon, will be released in the fall. Since he is currently at work on the album, at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif., the lag time between recording and releasing is down to a few months.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never had things move this fast with a record company,” the 60-year-old Frisell said from the studio. “That will be my third album in a year. That’s actually more the speed that the music happens. Usually, I do the music and then wait and wait and wait for the album to come out.”
While the gap is closing, there is little chance that the business will actually keep stride with Frisell. Frisell is not merely prolific, but also something of a shape-shifter; as soon as you think you’ve caught up to him, Frisell has already formed his next group, formulated his next musical idea – and had probably recorded his next album, which is recognizably Frisell-esque, but also distinct from the last thing he did.
“All We Are Saying,” for instance, will probably surprise those who hear Frisell’s concert at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3, at PAC3 in Carbondale. In Carbondale, Frisell will appear, for the first time, with two separate combos: the 858 Quartet and Beautiful Dreamers. The groups represent, more or less, Frisell’s chamber music side. The 858, formed in 2005, is a string ensemble, with violist Eyvind Kang, violinist Jenny Scheinman and cellist Hank Roberts. Beautiful Dreamers has a drummer, Rudy Royston, but the third member is violist Kang, which gives the trio, at least on last year’s eponymous album, a vibe closer to chamber jazz than a bebop group. After hearing these two combos – which Frisell calls his most personal projects – the Lennon tribute, recorded with steel guitar, drums, bass and violin, should offer a hint of the way music comes to Frisell in an ever-flowing torrent.
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“If you enter into music, it’s built-in, there’s never a question of something more to do. There’s this infinite, gigantic universe in front of you to play,” said Frisell, who speaks softly, and occasionally excuses himself for what he judges to be his imperfect communication skills (“When I play music, that’s how I express myself, much more clearly than I do with words,” he said at one point), but has an appealing chuckle to his voice. “You wake up, play that first note and it takes you away and it never stops. I’ve spent my whole life playing and every day I feel like I’m at the beginning. It feels like the first day. It’s: What am I going to say with this instrument?”
The statements Frisell makes with his guitar are not only frequent, but have a unique vocabulary, diction and sense of phrasing. Frisell is most easily categorized as a jazz player – he doesn’t sing, and few of his projects feature vocalists – but his playing almost invariably brings to mind rural America and the folk tradition. Tellingly, perhaps his most notable album is 1997’s “Nashville,” which featured Tennessee pickers (including dobroist Jerry Douglas and banjoist Ron Block, both now members of the bluegrass group Alison Krauss + Union Station) playing Frisell originals with titles like “Shucks” and “Dogwood Acres,” and a cover of Neil Young’s acoustic tune, “One of These Days.” “Nashville” earned Jazz Album of the Year from the jazz-centric DownBeat magazine. Also prominent was 1992’s “Have a Little Faith,” which had an all-America theme, with takes on Copland, Dylan, Sousa and the John Hiatt title song.
Frisell has ventured into funkier formats (2004’s “Unspeakable”), relatively traditional jazz (2006’s “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian”), South American vibes (this year’s “Lagrimas Mexicanas,” a collaboration with Brazilian singer-guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria), and a heavily produced album built on looping, splicing and sampling (2007’s “Floratone”). But the fallback position always seems to be toward folk. The song titles on the noisy “Unspeakable” suggest an old-time string band: “Fields of Alfalfa,” “Old Sugar Bear,” “Stringbean.” The range of songs he has covered is reasonably broad, including old blues, the Great American Songbook, Motown and jazz standards, but the list is weighted toward country and folk: A.P. Carter’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” the ancient “Shenandoah.” Beautiful Dreamers takes its name from the tune by Stephen Foster, the 19th century songwriter known as the “father of American music.”
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Frisell was raised not in a rural place, but in one that has been referred to, not complimentary, as a cowtown: the Denver of the ’50s and ’60s. In fourth grade he began playing clarinet in the school band, and found it was easy to lose himself in music. “That was incredible,” he said of those days.
When he hit 12, Frisell, like a lot of boys in 1963, sensed there was something more incredible than the clarinet and the school band. “There were a lot of guitars around,” he said. “Not at my house, but across the street and down the street. I started messing around.”
At 14, he got a paper route so he could buy an electric guitar. And while he continued playing clarinet through high school and into college, at the University of Northern Colorado, the guitar was spellbinding, practically defining him. “The guitar was when I really connected with my whole spirit,” said Frisell.
Frisell went to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, before moving to New York City. In New York, he established himself first in a quartet that featured Roberts on cello, and then in the downtown scene, where he collaborated often with avant-garde composer/saxophonist John Zorn, and also worked with Marianne Faithful, guitarist Vernon Reid and many others outside the jazz mainstream.
Creating a unique take on instrumental music did not involve coming up with a grand vision and then figuring out how to realize it, but making small forward movements. “Every day you just take these microscopic, tiny little steps. There’s this super-slow process,” Frisell, who has lived in Seattle area since the late ’80s, said.
Frisell has occasionally been influenced by things that seem outside his realm. The 858 Quartet was inspired by the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter; two albums from 1995 were designed as sonic accompaniment to Buster Keaton silent films. But part of Frisell’s process has been learning that it’s OK to not always step outside his boundaries, OK even to step backwards. Delving into his past, and staying within himself are also valid means to artistry.
“As I’m learning more about music, I’m also figuring out how to be true to who you are and where you came from,” he said. “There’s a period early on where you learn a lot and you close a lot of doors. When I got into jazz, I discarded some things from my past to try to get to this higher level. But at a point I had to realize you let all that stuff from your past in. And that’s where you get your voice. It’s a matter of showing who you are and where you come from.”
“All We Are Saying” is another example of Frisell embracing what he once eschewed. After getting his guitar, as a teenager, playing rock ‘n’ roll, and pretending to be the Beatles, was almost mandatory. “If you had a guitar, you were automatically in a band,” Frisell said. Launching into a John Lennon project – and doing so with a group of his frequent sidemen, including steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and violinist Scheinman – brought another part of Frisell’s past back into his make-up.
“Doing the John Lennon thing – I wasn’t expecting how heavy it would be to do this,” said Frisell, who did a set of Lennon tunes during a trio appearance at the London Jazz Festival, in 2005. “That was the exact time – when the Beatles were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show” and just before – music at that time of my life was probably the most powerful infusion of that feeling of joy. That was the biggest explosion that happened in my whole life. It means so much to me now.”
So if Frisell is still re-absorbing shards of his past and incorporating them into his music, that means he still hasn’t fully found his voice. Even after earning several Grammy Awards, being named best guitarist by DownBeat magazine’s critics and readers on multiple occasions – and, perhaps most significantly, claiming a spot as one of jazz’s breakthrough artists – Frisell is still a work in progress. Like he says, it was an infinite universe he was stepping into.
“You have to get comfortable with that idea that you’ll never finish,” he said. “You’ll never get it right or complete. It’s never a problem of having ideas. It’s insane.”