What's Hot with Jazz Guitar: Bill Frisell

by Doc Dosco

This week we feature jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Online Bio

Born in Baltimore, Bill Frisell played clarinet throughout his childhood
in Denver, Colorado. His interest in guitar began with his exposure to
pop music on the radio. Soon, the Chicago Blues became a passion through
the work of Otis Rush, B.B. King, Paul Butterfield and Buddy Guy. In
high school, he played in bands covering pop and soul classics, James
Brown and other dance material. Later, Bill studied music at the
University of Northern Colorado before attending Berklee College of
Music in Boston where he studied with John Damian, Herb Pomeroy and
Michael Gibbs. In 1978, Frisell moved for a year to Belgium where he
concentrated on writing music. In this period, he toured with Michael
Gibbs and first recorded with German bassist Eberhard Weber. Bill moved
to the New York City area in 1979 and stayed until 1989. He now lives in

"When I was 16, I was listening to a lot of surfing music, a lot of
English rock. Then I saw Wes Montgomery and somehow that kind of turned
me around. Later, Jim Hall made a big impression on me and I took some
lessons with him. I suppose I play the kind of harmonic things Jim would
play but with a sound that comes from Jimi Hendrix", Frisell told Wire.
Bill also lists Paul Motian, Thelonious Monk, Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan,
Miles Davis and his teacher, Dale Bruning, as musical influences.

Bill recorded his first two albums as a leader on ECM, both produced by
Manfred Eicher. Subdued and lyrical in nature, In Line, the first of the
ECM recordings, employed both electric and acoustic guitars in a series
of solos (including some overdubbing) and duets with bassist Arild
Andersen. Second was Rambler, featuring Kenny Wheeler, Bob Stewart,
Jerome Harris and Paul Motian. About Rambler, Fanfare said: "Bill
Frisell has built a little masterpiece here - not just a showcase for
his own instrumental creativity (of which there is much in evidence),
but a clever and poetic whole."

Frisell's third album and last for ECM, Lookout For Hope, marked the
recording debut of The Bill Frisell Band featuring Hank Roberts, Kermit
Driscoll and Joey Baron. Produced by Lee Townsend, the album's diverse
material - ranging from country swing to reggae, quasi-heavy metal and
backbeat rock with a twist to Monk's "Hackensack" - nevertheless
possessed the cohesive and unmistakable personality of a working band on
to a sound of its own. High Fidelity called it "the fullest showing of
Frisell's ability to date, especially his compositional range." The
Chicago Tribune said: "Lookout For Hope offers one of the most hopeful
signs that contemporary jazz can evolve with dignity, wit and charm."

Before We Were Born, Frisell's debut recording for Nonesuch, featured
three musical settings: Peter Scherer and Arto Lindsay produced,
co-arranged and performed on three Frisell compositions. "Some Song and
Dance", produced by Lee Townsend, is a suite of four pieces performed by
Frisell's Band with a saxophone section featuring Julius Hemphill, Billy
Drewes and Doug Wieselman. Frisell's "Hard Plains Drifter" is an
extended work shaped, produced and arranged by John Zorn and played by
the Frisell Band. The New York Times observed: "By following through on
the implications of his unfettered sounds, Mr. Frisell has made his best

Frisell's second Nonesuch album, Is That You?, features nine original
Frisell compositions, one by producer Wayne Horvitz and two cover tunes
- "Chain of Fools" and "Days of Wine and Roses". With Frisell playing
guitars, bass, banjo, ukulele and even clarinet, Is That You?
demonstrated with great clarity his pan-stylistic, yet strangely unified
musical world. Musician called the album "a very personal vision,
tearing down stylistic barriers with delicacy and sudden bursts of

Frisell's third album for Nonesuch, Where in the World?, also produced
by Wayne Horvitz, was the band's final recording with cellist Hank
Roberts. The Philadelphia Inquirer said: "There is nothing standard
about Where in the World?...Frisell is not only a master of an unusual
guitar-based sonic tapestry, he's one of the few composers capable of
writing for an interactive ensemble."

Have a Little Faith, Frisell's 1992 Nonesuch recording, was something of
a tribute album. Here, he interpreted the music of a number of American
composers whose music had inspired him - Aaron Copland, Muddy Waters,
Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Sonny Rollins, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives,
Victor Young, Madonna and John Philip Sousa. The extent to which Bill
has made this music his own demonstrates the completeness of its link to
his own compositional approach. For this recording Frisell's Band was
augmented by Don Byron (clarinet, bass clarinet) and Guy Klusevsek
(accordion) and produced by Wayne Horvitz. The San Francisco Bay
Guardian said, "Frisell treats each piece with typical earnestness and
lyricism, breaking into wrenching distortion and stormy group improv
only after breathing the original full of a softly glowing life."

This Land, Frisell's fifth Nonesuch recording, consists of all original
material with the band and a horn section of Don Byron (clarinets),
Billy Drewes (alto saxophone) and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone). Produced by
Lee Townsend, the album readily displays the connection between
Frisell's own writing and the composers' work to whom he pays tribute on
his previous Have a Little Faith. From the standpoint of synthesizing
his celebrated composing and arranging talents with exuberant
improvising and spirited band interaction, it is a landmark recording,
described by Rolling Stone as: "Strange meetings of the mysterious and
the earthy, the melancholy and the giddy, make perfect sense by
Frisell's deliciously warped way of thinking. The warpage is catching on
and not a moment too soon."

In 1994, Frisell recorded a pair of recordings of music that he composed
for three silent Buster Keaton films - The High Sign, One Week and Go
West The band premiered this music along with the films to a spirited
and sold-out audience at St. Ann's in Brooklyn in May '93. The pairing
displayed a natural affinity between the work of both artists. Their
works together possess an undeniable sense of adventure and penchant for
the unexpected that only enhances the warmth and humanity of both the
musical elements and the films themselves. It has proven to be the rare
case where the whole truly transcends the sum of its parts. Of the "Go
West" recording , Billboard noted: "With this set of music for the
classic Buster Keaton film, "Go West," Bill Frisell has crafted one of
his finest, most evocative albums. Evincing his best qualities as both
guitarist and composer, he harvests melancholy Americana from
deceptively modest, episodic themes. Coloring the scenes with acoustic
as well as his trademark electric, Frisell produces strangely cinematic
motifs on guitar, and his rhythm cohorts - longtime bassist Kermit
Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron - provide abundant narrative drive."

Frisell's success with the Keaton films has led him to other
film-related projects. He scored the music for Gary Larson's "Tales From
the Far Side" animated television special and Daniele Luchetti's Italian
feature film, "La Scuola." Some of the music from these projects has
been adapted and recorded by Frisell on Quartet, Frisell's Nonesuch
recording released in April '96.

The formation of the Quartet, with Ron Miles (trumpet), Eyvind Kang
(violin) and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), was a new working band for
Frisell, who had worked with the telepathic rhythm combination of Kermit
Driscoll and Joey Baron for nearly ten years. Frisell told Down Beat:
"It's so different from the traditional guitar-bass-drum thing, even
though Joey Baron, Kermit Driscoll and I never played like a typical
jazz trio. This group, with violin and brass, can play an orchestral
range of sounds. It's gigantic. It's given me a chance to write and
arrange in an even bigger way." Quartet, was quickly hailed by critics.
The New York Times declared: "Quartet may be his masterpiece."

Nonesuch released Nashville in April of 1997. Recorded in Nashville and
produced by Wayne Horvitz with members of Allison Krauss' Union Station
band - mandolin player Adam Steffey and banjo player Ron Block - the
project also features her brother and Lyle Lovett's bass player Viktor
Krauss, dobro great Jerry Douglas, vocalist Robin Holcomb and Pat
Bergeson on harmonica. "Comprising acoustic instrumental folk tunes with
unpredictable stylistic accents, Nashville boasts a dreamy, seductive
grandeur. The backing mandolin/dobro/bass interplay simmersÅ Frisell
himself picks and strings and most of all floats, laying out liquid
tones that settle over the melodies like heat haze on a swampy,
swimmerless lake." wrote the LA Weekly. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
summed it up simply with: "Frisell's nod to Nashville is Americana at
its best."

In January of 1998 Frisell's next project Gone, Just Like A Train came
out. On this exceptionally melodic and rhythmically vital instrumental
collection of original compositions, Frisell is joined by Viktor Krauss
and by Jim Keltner, all star drummer of choice for Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder,
T-Bone Burnett, George Harrison, John Lennon and The Traveling Wilburys.
The Rocket in Seattle wrote that "Frisell has managed to pull together
an ad hoc super trio of musicians from drastically different pasts, and
they manage to assemble a machine of colossal proportions: part skewered
jazz, part roadside folk blues, part gritty rock.Å Gone presents Frisell
at a creative apex. He's integrated a thoroughly unique understanding of
so much American MusicÅ  And it's all gift-wrapped in a lean, unimposing
trio framework that conveys sheer genius in a million directionsÅ  It
flies with shining power." Produced by Lee Townsend, the album proved to
be one of Frisell's most celebrated and popular to date.

Good Dog, Happy Man, brims full of Frisell's shimmering original
compositions. Here he is reunited with the Gone Just Like a Train rhythm
section of Viktor Krauss on bass and Jim Keltner on drums and joined by
Wayne Horvitz on Hammond B3 organ, multi-instrumentalist/slide guitarist
Greg Leisz (known for his work with Joni Mitchell, K.D. Lang, Emmy Lou
Harris, Beck and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others) plus special guest
Ry Cooder on the traditional folk song "Shenendoah". Produced by Lee
Townsend, Good Dog, Happy Man celebrates Frisell's emergence as a
composer who has created a genre unto himself. The Philadelphia Inquirer
wrote: "The 12 breathtakingly beautiful originals on Good Dog, Happy Man
resist every obvious classificationÅ  Frisell's been doing the
undefinable for years - creating revelatory music from threadbare
accompaniment; finding vital contexts for jazz improvisation that are
worlds away from bebop; burying shiny nuggets of melody beneath a gauzy
lace-like surfaceÅ  Frisell manages to evoke big worlds with stark single
notes and foreboding sustained tones, conjuring a richly textured
atmosphere that is both understated and undeniable. No matter what you
call it."

"Bill Frisell makes such consistently great records that it would be
easy to take the guitarist for granted. That would be sad, since no one
refracts age-old Americana through a cutting-edge prism with the
warm-hearted, fleet-minded individuality of Frisell. With Good Dog,
Happy Man he has crafted one of his earthiest essays yet. Backed by an
ultra-hip band, Frisell has forged originals whose folky melodies and
big-sky grooves make them seem like old friends in snazzy new clothes."
- Billboard. Bill's solo album, Ghost Town was described as "moody,
articulate music is a milestone in the career of a true innovator -
enchanting as anything he has done and a clear window into his muse"
(CMJ). With producer Lee Townsend, Frisell has created a sonic tapestry
that weaves in and out of original material and cover songs, some
recorded in multiple layers, others recorded nakedly solo. According to
Billboard, "Ghost Town sounds like a classic already".

For Frisell's acclaimed CD Blues Dream, released on Nonesuch in early
2001, the New Quartet of Greg Leisz, David Piltch and Kenny Wollesen is
joined by a horn section of Ron Miles (trumpet), Billy Drewes (alto
saxophone) and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone). In many ways it represented a
culmination of the strands running through many of the recordings in
Frisell's catalogue, combining the homespun lyricism of Good Dog, Happy
Man, Gone Just Like a Train and Nashville with the orchestral timbres of
Quartet and the expanded tonal palette and harmonic sophistication
afforded by a larger group (i.e. The Sweetest Punch, This Land and
Before We Were Born.) Produced by Lee Townsend, it has been described as
"A rich, eclectic masterpiece." (Blair Jackson, Mix Magazine).

The Autumn of 2001 saw the Nonesuch release of Bill Frisell with Dave
Holland and Elvin Jones, on which Bill was joined by two jazz legends to
interpret a number of the most enduring compositions from his songbook
as well as Henry Mancini's "Moon River" and Stephen Foster's "Hard
Times". "Holland and Jones warm well to the folk-inflected material,
complimenting the guitarist's offbeat charm and unerring taste with
their muscular authority." ? Billboard.

The Willies is Frisell's characteristically inimitable and modern take
on bluegrass and country blues with Danny Barnes (from The Bad Livers)
on banjo and guitar and Keith Lowe, (known for his work with Fiona
Apple, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps and Wayne Horvitz) on bass.
Produced by Lee Townsend and released in June 2002 on Nonesuch, the
material consists of such traditional songs as "Cluck Old Hen", "John
Hardy", "Single Girl", "Sugar Baby", "Blackberry Blossom", "Sitting on
Top of the World", "Good Night Irene", "Cold, Cold Heart" and a number
of Frisell's original compositions. John Cratchley of The Wire described
it as follows: This is music that you feel you have known yet you have
never heard before, like some treasured memory of an event that hasn't
happened yet .Å  It is firmly rooted in the simplest of musical gestures
yet manages to build, intricate layer by intricate layer into a
manifestation of cultural timelessness Å . This is composition of the
highest order masquerading as back-porch rambling".

Frisell's encounters with such Malian musicians as singer and guitarist
Boubacar Traore and percussionist Sidiki Camara, who has played with
many of Mali's most renowned performers, left him eager to further
explore the commonalities of African and American roots musics. His
Nonesuch recording, The Intercontinentals, is fresh evidence of those
impulses. In late 2001, Frisell assembled an intriguing quartet
consisting of Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist and percussionist
Vinicius Cantuária, Greek-Macedonian musician Christos Govetas on oud,
bouzouki and vocals and Mali's Camara on percussion and vocals. The
debut concerts at Seattle's Earshot Festival created quite a stir.
Downbeat described the group's music as possessing "fine webs of guitar
interlacings, swaying momentum, dense textures and rhythmic urgency."
The group was soon expanded to include Greg Leisz (on pedal steel and
various slide guitars) and Scheinman (violin). In May and September
2002, the album was recorded in Seattle and San Francisco with producer
Lee Townsend and engineer Tucker Martine for release in April, 2003. The
material consists of all-new Frisell compositions plus songs by Boubacar
Traore, Cantuaria, Gilberto Gil and Govetas. It is an album that
combines Frisell's own brand of American roots music and his
unmistakable improvisational style with the influences of Brazilian,
Greek and Malian sounds.

Other recent projects include a Burt Bacharach - Elvis Costello CD, The
Sweetest Punch, on Decca which features Frisell's arrangements of the
same 12 tunes Elvis and Burt recorded together on their pop record for
Mercury, Painted From Memory. The record was produced by Lee Townsend
and features Bill on guitar, Viktor Krauss on bass, Brian Blade on drums
and a horn section comprised of Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ron Miles on
trumpet, Don Byron on clarinet and Billy Drewes on saxophone. Cassandra
Wilson and Elvis Costello lend vocals to a couple of tracks.

In September 1998 Nonesuch released a duo recording of jazz standards by
Frisell and labelmate pianist Fred Hersch entitled Songs We Know.
Downbeat's 1998 Critic's poll awarded Bill's Nashville "Album Of The
Year," and Bill himself, "Guitarist Of The Year" in both 1998 and 1999.
His Quartet won the German equivalent of a Grammy, the prestigious
Deutsche Schallplatten Preis. Meanwhile at the Annual Jazz Awards in New
York City, the Jazz Journalists Association and the Knitting Factory
honored him with the Award for "Guitarist of the Year" in both 1998 and

Moviegoers will hear Frisell playing alongside Bono, Brian Eno, John
Hassell and Daniel Lanois on the soundtrack of Wim Wenders' film,
Million Dollar Hotel, starring Mel Gibson with a screenplay by Bono. He
also composed and recorded original soundtrack music for four recent
productions, including American Hollow, an HBO documentary special by
Rory Kennedy about an Appalachian family, a public radio program about
the human genome called The DNA Files, the music for two Gus Van Zant
films - Finding Forrester and the remake of Psycho - and the music for
Gary Larson's second animated television project "Tales From The Far
Side II."

Bill Frisell's website


Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in
Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com ,
where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot with Jazz Guitar'
columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc
endorses Heritage Guitars and is a featured artist on their website.
He also endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps -- great for jazz (and anything else!

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