By James Halecopyright © 1999 James Hale
Listen to guitarist Bill Frisell talk about his recent projects in his wide-eyed, open manner and you can easily mistake him for some newcomer who has stumbled into the limelight instead of a seasoned veteran who consistently places at or near the top of critics' polls. His humility at being able to record with the likes of Ry Cooder is genuine and a large part of what makes him one of the most interesting, distinctive and eclectic instrumentalists in contemporary American music.
He became a favorite on the Downtown New York scene in the '80s with his adventurous use of volume and electronic effects, and throughout the '90s has delved deeply into the roots of Americana, exploring everything from Sousa marches to Southern folksongs. His quirky phrasing, wry wit and unbridled enthusiasm for every project he undertakes have allowed him to win new fans without alienating his old ones. Even when he's exploring the American song form there's always a moment when the wild guitar pyrotechnician will rise to the surface. A tweak of a knob in the midst of some tender ballad and he can suddenly be screaming like a teenager with a big amp and a new guitar.
"Oh, yeah," he chuckles, "that stuff is still in there and it still comes out every once in awhile."
On the surface, there's little in Frisell's early background to point to where he has landed at age 48. Born in Baltimore, he grew up in Denver, where he studied clarinet and saxophone before The Beatles drew him -- like many other 13-year-old boys -- to the electric guitar. Proceeds from a paper route bought him his first guitar-and-amp combination. Although he majored in music at the University of North Colorado and studied with jazz guitar legend Jim Hall at Boston's Berklee College of Music, he didn't have a clear concept of his own potential until he reconciled the jazz he was studying with the rock guitarists who had captured his imagination in the '60s. After a period of self-doubt, he determined that he could play jazz with as much abandon as Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton displayed.
He says the secret to finding his own voice was in hearing beyond the guitar itself.
"I didn't even think of it as a guitar. It just seemed like the perfect instrument to get out all sorts of things. You can play a lot of things like Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins or various piano players on the guitar. You can get to a lot of things -- orchestral music or whatever."
It has only been recently that Frisell has explored beyond his triad of personal guitar heroes: Hall, Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.
"I've been attracted to more guitar music, mostly older music like bluegrass and some of the early blues players. That's been coming out in my music a lot more. I've discovered that I like a really broad range of guitarists. I like listening to Segovia as much as Robert Johnson."
The change has resulted in a greater use of acoustic guitar and a more refined use of electronics. After years of relying heavily on a volume pedal and numerous other devices to shape his sound, he has pared down to just four modification devices.
"It's part of whittling things down. I don't know whether it's part of getting older, or just this research I've been doing into the music that got me playing in the first place. Lately, I've been more attracted to simpler songs and melodies. For as long as I've been playing, I've been trying to take away the excess and get to just the bare minimum; just playing less and less. That's why I'm always attracted to the melody rather than all the fancy stuff you can do with it. The jazz players I really love are those like Miles Davis who can really play a melody."
It's no surprise, then, that his latest projects, a large-scale orchestration of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello songs called The Sweetest Punch that features musicians including Cassandra Wilson, Don Byron and Brian Blade and a quartet recording, Good Dog, Happy Man, are filled with strong melodic ideas like the gorgeous Southern lament, "Shenandoah."
Performed as a duet with guitarist Ry Cooder, "Shenandoah" is a piece that can raise your neck hair with its heart-breaking lilt. Frisell and Cooder sound like they were made to play it together, and the story behind their collaboration has the ring of fate to it.
"Ry's kind of like a hero of mine," says Frisell shyly. "He came to see the trio [with drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Viktor Krauss] in Los Angeles and I guess he liked it. The first thing that came into my mind was, 'I wonder if I can get him to play with me.' It was a long process, but we stayed in touch and he had the idea that we could play 'Shenandoah' because he liked this version that this little-known guitarist Johnny Smith had played. Ry didn't know that I had studied with Johnny Smith when I still lived in Colorado. So I think that really got me in with him."
Frisell's genuine surprise that Cooder would want to record with him extends to his underestimation of his attraction to other players from popular music. Although he says he would love to play with some of the singer-songwriters who share his interest in Americana, he concludes that he might have to make the first move.
"I got to play one song with Emmylou Harris on a radio show once, but I'm not sure how aware of me those kinds of musicians are. It's still kind of a different world, I think."
Perhaps, but Frisell is thriving in his own world. Calls to guest on recordings by artists as diverse as drummer Ginger Baker and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler keep him on the road, away from his family in Seattle. On the eve of leaving for a film score project in Europe, Frisell says he is trying to make more time for his own music but sees little possibility of slowing down.
"Doing my own stuff makes it even harder to stop. After working so hard to get it going, when it starts going I don't want to not do it."
He takes one of his characteristic long pauses and his voice fills with wonder.
"I just feel so lucky to get to play with all these people."