Interview with Bill Frisell

by Colin Sapp
October 26, 2001

Colin: Let’s talk about your new album With Dave Holland And Elvin Jones. You experimented with some very interesting and beautiful overdubbing and effects. Tell me a little bit about the creativity with the production of this album.

Bill Frisell: Well, let’s see. Part of that came about because it was done so fast. I had just a matter of hours with Dave and Elvin to do the whole thing. The first day, we were setting up and Elvin hadn’t shown up. “Where is Elvin? He’s not here.” I started to wonder what was going on. It turned out that his wife had mixed up the days and he didn’t even know that he was supposed to be there the first day. So he gets there really late. We played just a few hours that day and we only had one more day, so we played a little bit that day. And that was the whole thing. So it was really fast. I mean I’ve done a lot of records that way, but I’d never even really met Elvin before and we’ve never played together, so I was pretty nervous about it. I wanted to keep the feeling that it was a live thing with the material there was, just orchestrate it a little bit. So that’s where the idea of the overdubs came in. I’m really happy with the way it came out, but I hope that it still retains the chemistry of just the three of us playing. It’s kind of a balancing act not to stick too much stuff on there. I ended up doing it almost like if it was a little big band arrangement. I just sort of added these parts to the melodies and stuff.

C: Whose idea was it to put you, Elvin and Dave together?

B: It was Michael Shrieve’s idea to get Elvin. Michael was the original drummer in Santana. If you’ve ever seen the movie Woodstock, he took that long drum solo. That’s him when he was like 17 or maybe 18. He must’ve been 18 I guess at Woodstock and that was sort of his big moment. When he was too young to get into jazz clubs, he went to hear Coltrane’s quartet play somewhere in San Francisco. They wouldn’t let him in, so he climbed in through some sort of vent or window or something in a bathroom of the venue. So he dropped down onto the bathroom in the back of the club, you know, this little kid, and there standing in front of him was Trane’s group. You know with Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. They were like, “Who’s this kid?” And they actually invited him in. So that was the first time he met Elvin. Then eventually he had all this success with Santana and somehow, he was able to stay connected with Elvin over this long period of time. Recently he’s been following him around and trying to get him to talk about things. He’s trying to write a book about him. So anyway, Michael lives in Seattle also. We’ve played together and we’re friends and everything. I’ve done a couple records with him. Anyway, I was doing a gig in Seattle and he came. It was at some time when he had just been with Elvin or something and he just got this strong thing in his head that I should play with Elvin. So it really came from him having this idea. He said “Man, you’ve gotta play with Elvin.” And I said, “Yeah, right. I’m sure that’s never going to happen.” But somehow, one thing led to another and we got together. I had played a little bit with Dave before and we were already talking about doing something. I knew Dave had played with Elvin, so it seemed like Dave would be a good link between me and Elvin.

C: The majority of the material on this new album has a really bluesy vibe to it. Do you think this is because of Elvin’s presence?

B: One thing that I thought about a lot before we did this is that I always hear, in anything he’s doing, this heavy blues thing going on. There’s an old record where Elvin plays guitar, like acoustic blues guitar on it. I forget what the song is called. It’s “Elvin’s Guitar Blues” or something. There’s a sound in his drums that always reminds me of that. A lot of the stuff we did, he would get really excited about. He’d talk about these people that he really liked when he was a kid, like Big Bill Broonzy. He’s really into that older blues stuff. That’s kind of what he grew up with. It just seems really natural for him. When he plays the drums, it’s super modern and everything, but it also goes way back into that old stuff too, I think.

C: You’ve played with the Who’s Who of modern jazz rhythm sections. Could you talk about some of your favorite players and what makes those individuals stick out in your memory?

B: Oh boy. Well, someone that is of the same generation as Elvin is Paul Motian. That’s one of the longest relationships I’ve ever had with anybody playing-wise. I mean we’re still playing and it’s more than 20 years now that we’ve been playing. He’s probably the biggest influence on me. I don’t know what to say about him. He was sort of the one that really gave me a chance to really be myself playing in his band when we first started playing. Some of the first recordings I ever did were with him. I had been in New York for a couple of years and most of the people I was playing with were people that I had met at Berklee that had moved down to New York and we would have these jam sessions. I was playing for weddings and there was a little bit of stuff going on. I was playing with Bob Moses and also Mike Gibbs. He used to teach at Berklee. I would do gigs with him every once in a while. But it was either just doing jam sessions with my friends or doing these horrible, I shouldn’t say horrible, I was lucky to have these gigs playing weddings or whatever it was. But I was getting kind of discouraged and then I get this call from Paul and that was kind of like, “Wow.” It seemed like things started picking up after that. He’s just a gigantic figure in my whole development. I’ve been so lucky to play with all of these heroes of mine. I’ve recently been playing with Ron Carter a bit. We did some duo gigs. He’s been one of my biggest for as long as I can remember. He’s a gigantic hero of mine. That’s been a real thrill to get to play with him. Through Paul is where I first met Charlie Haden and I’ve gotten to play with him quite a bit over the years. Sometimes with Paul, but I guess more with other people. He’s another one of those influential people for me. Lee Konitz I met through Paul and we’ve played together a lot. Paul Bley I met through Paul. Dewey Redman I met through Paul. Gary Peacock I met through Paul. (laughs) All of those people Paul introduced me to and then I ended up playing more with all of them.

C: What kinds of things do you talk about when rehearsing your music with a rhythm section?

B: Actually, I’ve been thinking about this a little bit. I was just thinking about it because of this past week when I was at the Village Vanguard. No one really talks about anything, really. I mean with Paul, we haven’t rehearsed since, I don’t know, 15 years ago is the last time we had a rehearsal or something. (laughs) Or maybe 10 years ago or something. It’s just sort of gotten to a point where you’re just having a conversation. We just start playing. The only conversation would be if there’s some new music, we would say, “Here’s some new music and we’ll just play this.” But there’s not really much figuring out what to do. I’m not trying to say it’s not good to talk about stuff. But as I get older, I can almost tell before we’ve even played together whether it’s going to work or not just because of whatever kind of personal connection there is. If that’s there, I know it’s going to work. When I first played with Tony (Scherr, bass) and Kenny, (Wollesen, drums) it was at the Vanguard like two years ago and I never really said anything to them. We just started playing and things just sort of go the way they go. When I played at the Village Vanguard two weeks ago, (October 11-14, 2001) with them and Jenny, (Scheinman, violin) I really didn’t know her well. This was the first time we really played and I just had a feeling that it was going to be good. As the week went on, she just kept doing everything that I was wishing she would do. I never said one word. I was sort of checking it out, like how it would go, like if I needed to say anything or not. As the week went on, it just kept getting better and better, more and more intuitive. I never ever really said one word to her the whole time about what we should do or anything. So it’s really cool when you can meet people that you’re that connected to. I’m not saying that it’s not important to talk about stuff, but for me, what you play says a lot more than what you can say verbally. If everybody’s listening and really connected, just the way you play a note here or there can transmit a lot more information than trying to explain it.

C: I was just listening to the Kenny Wheeler album Angel Song and your accompaniment is amazing on that recording. What do you focus on when you accompany a soloist?

B: I’m just really trying to immerse myself in the whole group. It’s not that much different than soloing really. I mean, it’s sort of like you’re soloing, but you’re more in the midst of everything I guess. When you’re soloing you’re supposedly more out in front. But even when I’m soloing, I’m trying to be really integrated with the bass and drums, if it’s a trio setting. It’s always about this conversation type thing or blending together, whether it’s a solo or whether it’s accompanying. It’s really just about listening as hard as I can or trying to get inside what everyone else is doing. I’m thinking about Angel Song, if Lee (Konitz, alto sax) or Kenny (Wheeler, trumpet) were playing a melody, I’d try to support the melody or try to orchestrate in some way or harmonize it. But then at the same time trying to be connected with the bass. That record was really amazing for me the way Dave (Holland, bass) was the rhythm section all by himself. He was so strong. Just laying down the rhythmic and harmonic foundation for all of the music to work up from. He was actually what made it so easy for Kenny, Lee and myself to kind of be able to feel free over the top because he was so strong with keeping it together down there.

C: Is there anyone who you haven’t collaborated with that you’re still waiting for the opportunity to play with?

B: Oh, there’s millions of them. I wouldn’t even know where to start. There’s so many. Legendary people that I’d love to play with would be like Sonny Rollins or Ornette Coleman or Wayne Shorter. But then there’s always people I hear that aren’t famous that would be great. There are singers I’d like to play with too. There’s just so much music out there, it’s insane. I don’t know, it’s pretty overwhelming how much stuff there is and how much that there is to try to learn and figure out.

C: Who do you consider to be the innovators in jazz right now?

B: Right at this moment, it seems like it’s at sort of a weird point, where jazz has become defined as a style or something that you’re supposed to fit into. For me, that’s not really what it is. Jazz is a process, it’s a way you think, it’s something that never should stop. It’s not like something that there’s a correct way to do it. 40 years ago, it seemed like there were so many more people playing that music where every time they played, the whole history was moving ahead. I’d get a new Miles Davis record and we were hearing something that we’d never heard before but it was still connected to Louis Armstrong. We were seeing the whole mass and the whole history of music inch forward every time someone put out a record. There’s people that are still doing it. The people who are trying to move ahead, like Don Byron. He’s always questioning things. He takes chances. That’s somebody who really knows the history. He can look back and do stuff. But then at the same time he’s sort of messing with it and using his imagination and going off into the future. Steve Coleman is somebody that’s kind of invented this whole new thing. It’s pretty intense. Henry Threadgill is doing stuff that I’ve never heard anybody do before. Somebody like Wayne Shorter is also still pushing the stuff ahead. He’s a famous guy and everything, but in some ways, he’s maybe being overlooked right now. He’s still moving ahead where some of the music is just stuck back somewhere. For me, he’s one of the master guys around now and he’s still doing stuff that’s unexplainable. New amazing stuff. Or Ornette Coleman. There’s some of the older guys, now they’re older, geez. I mean I never thought of Ornette Coleman as being an older guy, but some of those guys are getting into their 70’s and stuff. Or like Paul Motian is still going ahead with stuff. It’s like what they said on that Ken Burns’ thing, you have to wait 50 years or something before you know what is history. So I guess we’ll see later on.

C: You’re talking about history and tradition. Your music sounds so fresh and new, yet the listener can hear elements of tradition in it. What kinds of traditions do you draw from in your music and how much do you value musical traditions?

B: I’m always looking back a lot, looking at old stuff. What really gets me going is when I see these connections between things. A lot of times you can see when you go backwards where the divisions get more blurred between blues and country or black and white. Nowadays, everything’s so divided up into these categories and there’s all the different names for what style things are supposed to be in. Everything’s put in these separate containers. Just about any kind of music, if you go far enough back, there’s a point where it connects with some other kind of music. I mean, you think of the banjo as supposedly being some kind of hillbilly instrument or whatever but it’s an African instrument. There’s the thing about saying that the blues came from Africa and then jazz came from the blues. But there’s also a lot of music from the United States that went back to Africa. There was a lot of stuff going back and forth. African people were listening to hillbilly records from the 20’s that came from the States. There’s all this weird back and forth stuff going on. I’m always looking for those moments where something proves that all these divisions aren’t true. I kind of get off on that kind of stuff.

C: Your music doesn’t fall into one category. You’re really blurring the boundaries between jazz and Americana in a very seamless and natural way. What propelled your playing and writing in this direction and what category do you think your music falls under now?

B: Yeah, I’m just not sure anymore. After saying all this about not liking categories, I still actually feel like I’m coming from jazz more than anything else. The greats: Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, those are all the people I kind of model what I am trying to do after. And it’s still really coming from that more than anything else. So I don’t know what to call it, really. Charlie Parker or any of them, they just used the music that was around them and they used it as a vehicle for improvising or whatever you want to call it. That’s still pretty much what I’m doing. A lot of that country kind of stuff was always sort of in there and lately I’ve gotten more blatant about looking at it. When I got into jazz, I didn’t really listen to guitar players that much, other than Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, I mean there were a few guitar players. But I was more focused on listening to saxophone players and piano players and trumpet players and drummers and everything. But in the last few years, I’ve started listening more to actual guitar music like from the 20’s or old blues guys and country guys whatever you call it. I’m trying to figure out how some of that stuff is actually kind of similar to jazz. I’ve heard some really old Bill Monroe records and just for a moment it’ll sound like Duke Ellington for a second. It’ll just feel the same or something. It’s kind of hard to explain how that happens. I just hear these little connections all the time. In the last few years I’ve been listening a lot more to actual guitar stuff so I guess that comes out more. But you know what’s weird about the Vanguard, in the 40’s and 50’s, there was a lot of folk stuff going on in there too. Some of the songs we played at the Vanguard I kind of intentionally played. “Good Night Irene” we played and “John Hardy,” those were played by Leadbelly and he played in there a lot. We were playing there for two weeks (in October, 2001) and on the first day we went in there to set up, I started playing “Good Night Irene” in the afternoon. Lorraine, she runs the club now, was back in the kitchen and she came out with tears in her eyes. She was flipping out because she really, really loved Leadbelly and he used to play in there and he would play that song. Pete Seeger used to play in there, the Weavers and all that kind of stuff. I felt like when we were doing that, you know, that that’s supposed to be happening in there too. So much stuff happened in that club. I first went in there in 1969. That’s when I graduated from high school. There was a lot of wild stuff happening there. I went to hear Chick Corea in there right when he was starting to do all of that electric stuff. I walked in there and the whole back wall was just piled with amps. Electric stuff, wires and all kinds of stuff all over. Now, I guess I’m the most electric thing that’s in there. But it was just this big huge pile of electric stuff. I was in there the first week that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew record came out. I don’t remember who I went to see, maybe it was (Charles) Mingus or something, and they were playing Bitches Brew really loud over the sound system before the band came on! (laughs) You’re hearing this really wild brand new music. It’s really amazing to get to play in there now.

C: Are your compositions a result of an intention to try to be different by fusing these different things?

B: It’s really just this sum culmination of everything I’ve heard. I guess I’m trying to be different in some way. I don’t even know if you can try. If you’re just honest with who you are, you’ll naturally be different than everybody else because everybody’s different from everybody else. It’s not like you try to do it, it’s more like you’re trying to be honest with where you’re coming from. All of my favorite jazz musicians are those guys who were their own person that weren’t copies of somebody else.

C: Do you sit down and take time to compose, or do ideas for compositions happen naturally when you’re experimenting on your guitar?

B: Kind of both. Sometimes I don’t use the guitar. I’ll just write melodies on a piece of paper. It’s almost like if you’re walking down the street whistling, not really thinking about what you’re doing. I’ll just sit there and try to write melodies and then I’ll go back and see what’s there, play it on the guitar or whatever. Or sometimes it comes from the guitar. It’s hard for me to write anything that is preconceived. It’s hard for me to think “Ok, now I’m going to write a fast song, or a sad song.” Stuff just kind of comes out and I try to just let it come out and then figure out what it is later.

C: Which albums that you’ve recorded do you think capture you at your best and why those recordings in particular?

B: Oh, I don’t know. Hopefully I’m moving ahead all the time. I’m so lucky to be able to do all these records, like once a year or how many ever it is, because it gives you a jumping off point to move on to the next thing. It always feels like that. They never feel really finished. You sort of do it and that’s where you’re at at that moment. Then I don’t really listen to them anymore. I work real hard to do whatever the recording is and then it’s like, “Ok, thank God that’s done.” Then you sort of use that to get you going on to the next thing. It’s not like I dislike any of the early ones, but I guess the more recent ones are the ones that are, like that Blues Dream one, I guess or something, but I don’t know. I just see them all as little steps along the way and try to keep moving along. There’s not like one that’s like, “Wow! That one is …” you know. There’s certain ones that I have memories of where it was really fun. Like Gone Just Like A Train was the first time I got to play with Jim Keltner. There’s always that kind of excitement going on. I don’t know how much of that comes through in the music.

C: Do you ever have any performance anxiety?

B: I’m more uncomfortable just talking to someone, like being sociable for me is harder for me than actually performing. Somehow getting on stage and playing I’ve never had that much of a problem with. I mean sometimes there’s adrenaline or a little nervousness, but I would say it hasn’t been a problem really. From when I was 10, which is when I started playing clarinet, I played in marching bands, and somehow getting on stage and playing never bothered me really.

C: You’re not playing your Klein live anymore. What happened?

B: The guy at the company, Lorenzo (German) actually fixed it all up for me. But it took a long time to get it fixed. While it was gone, I started playing this other guitar. It’s sort of like I’m stuck in between. There’s some stuff I need to sort of fix back on it. I tried to do too much putting these extra pickups and all this stuff on it. I kind of overdid it. (laughs) I just screwed up. I had him put all this, you know, Piezo or whatever you call it, pickups in the bridge and that sort of changed the sound of the bridge. There’s like too much stuff in there. There wasn’t enough room to put the knobs, so there’s a tone and a volume knob that are those stacked things, so those are kind of sticking up too high. I have to simplify it back a little, but I just haven’t really had a chance to. It’s still an incredible guitar, but then I just got comfortable playing this other guitar.

C: What model is your other guitar?

B: It’s a Gibson 446. It’s like new a model. I’m not even sure if they make them anymore. It’s a little bigger than a Les Paul but it’s completely hollow inside. It just kind of has this right combination of electric and acoustic for me.

C: Are you still using your RAT for your distorted tones?

B: Not for a long time. Mainly I’ve been using this Ibanez Tube Screamer thing. It’s like one of those reissues. I was just thinking about the RAT lately. I should check that out again. The Tube Screamer thing is real smooth sounding. I used to use the RAT a lot.

C: Did the Line 6 Delay Modeler replace your Boss DD-3?

B: No, I’m still using that. The Line 6 thing I’m using more for, I don’t know, there’s a couple little weird, like a ring modulator thing. I use it for looping stuff a little bit, and backwards stuff.

C: Is that how you got the backwards guitar effect on this record?

B: It could be. I also have this old Electro Harmonix 16 second delay. It’s so fragile I hardly ever take it out. On the record with Elvin, I think that’s what I was using.

C: Your playing is some of the most egoless playing out of any musician I’ve heard, yet the profoundness of your improvisation is nothing short of genius. This type of playing seems impossible to practice! When you were studying at Berklee, what did a typical practice routine consist of?

B: Practicing is sort of a weird thing. You have to do it and the worst thing I could say to a student is not to practice. But the real thing is where you’re playing with other people. I can learn more in doing one gig, playing with some other people than I could in a year of practicing. It’s just so much more intense. If you’re open to what’s going on and you try to absorb what’s going on, you learn so much faster. Another thing that was really cool, there was this club Michael’s that was only a few blocks away from Berklee. We used to play there a lot. Everybody was able to get gigs there. That was kind of amazing. I don’t know if there’s a club around there now. I guess any kind of gig is good. You can learn a lot more from one gig. It’s such a double-edged thing though. Sometimes if you practice a lot, you have to find a way to get out of that frame of mind when you go play. That’s what was hard for me. Sometimes I would practice all day working on something, when you go play a gig, you really have to be open to what’s going on at that moment. You can’t be trying to fit in what you were you working on practicing. You kind of have to forget it. You work on the stuff and then when it’s time to really play, you need to completely clear all of that stuff out of your mind or else it gets in the way of the interacting with other people sometimes.

C: Who were some of your favorite teachers when you were here at Berklee?

B: Well, my guitar teacher was Jon Damian. He’s still there. He was just so great. He was just what I needed at that moment. I learned so much from him. One of the biggest was Herb Pomeroy. I took all of his classes. I was thinking even some of the stuff that I did on those overdubs on this Elvin record, it’s in a pretty simplified way, but some of the stuff I did kind of came directly from things that I did in those arranging classes. He’s one of the greatest of all times as far as I’m concerned. I really wish I could go back and take every class all over again that I took with him. And there was Mike Gibbs also. He was an arranging teacher then who was really, really great. I was playing a lot outside of school. Most of the classes were like arranging type stuff. At the time I was trying to apply that information to the guitar rather than taking all those ensemble classes and all that stuff.

C: Do you have any memorable performances from when you were a student at Berklee?

B: There was this little performance space in the 1140 Boylston St. building. I forget what the name of the room was. This really, really small, little, you know it had a little stage…

C: Was it 1W?

B: That sounds…maybe that’s what it was called. Anyway, I played a lot in there. It would be different student ensemble things that would happen in there. There was a lot of really cool stuff. You could decide you just wanted to do a concert. You could arrange to have it on a certain day. You’d stick up some little flyers around saying that you were going to play. That was so cool. At the time I played with Tiger Okoshi’s band. Bakku was the name of the band we started. It was with Kermit Driscoll, Tommy Campbell and a guy named Frank on keyboards. We did a concert right when the new Performance Center was built and it was packed with people. That was really thrilling to do it just with that band. There was the guitar ensemble with Bret Willmott that was cool too. We did some performance stuff in that 1A room I think.

C: I know Bret quite well actually.

B: Oh yeah? Say “Hi” to him for me. Man, I haven’t seen him since, I don’t even know when. I think I saw him somewhere after I left Berklee but it’s been a really long time. Back then, that was the one guitar ensemble where we did more modern stuff. That was the cool one to be in. We could really stretch the thing way more with the stuff that he wrote. It was really cool.

C: Did you study with Jim Hall before or after you went to Berklee?

B: Well actually in between. I went to Berklee in 1971 for just one semester and I really didn’t like it at all. I just went in there and got out of there as fast as I could. Right after that is when I took like 8 lessons with Jim Hall. Then I moved back to Colorado and in 1975 is when I came back again. I think I was ready for it then.

C: Who have you been listening to lately?

B: Let’s see. It’s always changing. I’ve been listening to a lot of music from Mali and stuff. I just love that stuff. There’s an African guitarist Boubacar Traore. I was supposed to do a concert with Boubacar this weekend, but he decided at the last minute not to come. I don’t know what happened. He’s come to my house a couple times and stayed with me. I’ve been working on his music for like a year and a half. We were supposed to do this concert. I don’t know if it’s because of all of the stuff going on or what. He just at the very last minute cancelled this concert. There’s another guy coming from Mali next week that I’m going to play with that I’ve been playing with a bunch of times. A percussionist, Sidiki Camara. He plays with all those guys like, do you know Habib Koite? Sidiki plays on about just every one of those records Habib’s on. He’s on Djelimady’s (Tounkara, Super Rail Band) records. Just about every one of those Malian guys. (laughs) So I’m excited about that. That’s just within the last couple years I’ve been getting off on that stuff.

C: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in the music business?

B: If you’re going to play music, the thing is you have to want to do it for the sake of the music as opposed to wanting to make money or anything like that. It has to totally be about the music. Hopefully all of the other stuff will come through. That’s where I’ve been lucky. I’ve actually been able to work doing that. I know it doesn’t work when you try to outguess what people want or something. You have to do what you want to do. You have to be totally committed to doing it. I remember a point, I don’t even remember how old I was, maybe I was 18 or 19, there was just this moment where I knew I was going to try to play music. Basically I just said to myself, “Ok, I’m just going to do this. No matter what happens, I’m going to just do this for the rest of my life.” You have to be sure you want to do it, I guess. You’ve got to make a living, but it seems like any time I’ve done something musically that I didn’t really want to do, but I was going to make some money and I did it for the money, I always regretted it. If it doesn’t feel right musically then you shouldn’t do it no matter how much money is involved.

C: Your sound is inimitable and distinctly yours. What advice do you have for aspiring guitarists who are looking to find their own identity on their instrument?

B: You have to just be who you are. Sometimes it’s hard, almost frightening, to just be honest with where you’re coming from and try to use that instead of hiding it. Don’t try to be something that you’re not and don’t be ashamed of wherever you come from. Let that come out in what you do.