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Bill Frisell: Never Ending Revelations

Bill Frisell: Never Ending Revelations

Courtesy Nedici Dragoslav

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Touchstone Albums Picks is a new column from All About Jazz that invites artists to talk about the albums that have moved and inspired them and perhaps in some way informed their own music. In celebration of the publication of Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer (Faber & Faber, 2022), Irish journalist Philip Watson's definitive biography of the Denver guitarist, AAJ invited Bill Frisell to kick off the series.

What follows is an extract, largely unedited, of a conversation where Frisell shares his thoughts on the music and musicians that made a deep impression on him in his youth. In doing so, Frisell reveals something of his own musical philosophy. "All the albums that I put on this list, I can go back to any of them now," says Frisell. "I still hear new things every time. It is never-ending what keeps revealing itself."

Wes Montgomery
Tequilla
(Verve)
(1966)

Bill Frisell: That album was the big... atomic explosion in my mind. I was in my second year at high school, you know, I had been playing guitar for a while, clarinet in the school band and orchestra. At that point I was really getting into blues, surf music, rock 'n' roll, the British invasion... There was a talent show at my high school and these girls were doing this dance routine to this Wes Montgomery song, "Bumpin' on Sunset." They'd put the record on and then they'd dance around. And the band director said: 'Well, it's this all-school show, it would be so much better if it was live.' He said, 'You play guitar, do you think you could learn the songs?' So, he gave me that album. That became the link between what I'd been listening to before and what I started to listen to after, you know.

Luckily, that song was sort of minimal enough that I could pick it up. It's basically one chord for the whole song. I could relate to it... there's this blues thing in it... but then there's Ron Carter playing bass. It was incredible at that time what you could get at the local drugstore—cut-out albums from Riverside and Blue Note. I went and I found another Wes Montgomery album, his first trio record on Riverside. That was like, 'Oh my God, what is going on now?' That sound, I had never heard that before. The sound and the feel. It is something that stays with me to this day. I think of him as one of those... markers, you know, like Charlie Christian... but there's so many...

All About Jazz: Wes Montgomery did a lot of covers of pop tunes, folk music, traditional tunes, film themes, and I thought, 'Well, hang on, this sounds a lot like Bill Frisell;' was that an inspiration to you in the beginning, or maybe later on when you started to expand on the sources of the music that you played and recorded?

BF: Maybe later, I mean, in the beginning that might have drawn me to it because there was that connection with what was happening right around us at the time—other songs that you had just heard on the radio, a Beatles' song or a Burt Bacharach song or whatever, and then he would do it and bring you into his world and that would lead you to some of the other things that he was doing. It would all connect together.

As time went on I really grew to appreciate even more that aspect of what he was doing, the way he played a melody... you can hear the words in the way he plays a melody. Some songs, like, "What The World Needs Now Is Love... "I've been playing that song for... I don't when I started to play it, and then sometime later I was like, 'Oh, wait a minute, that's on that album.' I heard him play it first, you know.

AAJ: You never got to see Wes Montgomery live, did you?

BF: No... that talent show was in the Fall of 1967 and then in the summer of 1968 was the first jazz concert I was going to. My father got us tickets and it was a George Wein, Newport thing—they were traveling around the country. This was in Colorado. Wes Montgomery was on the bill, Cannonball Adderley, Dionne Warwick and Thelonious Monk. The only person I knew on that list was Dionne Warwick because she had hits all over the radio, but the other people I didn't even know who they were. I had never heard of Cannonball Adderley, I'd never heard of Monk... but Wes Montgomery, that's why I wanted to go. But then he passed away, maybe weeks before the concert. But we already had our tickets, so we went anyway...

So, I got to see Monk. That's the only time I saw Monk, but I didn't know what it was. And I heard Gary Burton's Quartet with Larry Coryell and Bob Moses and Steve Swallow, and here I am, I'm just coming to terms with hearing Wes Montgomery for the first time and then I'm hearing Larry Coryell... he's playing a similar guitar, a big Gibson Archtop guitar, but everything is being shattered and broken apart. So much happened in these very few years with what was coming at me.



Various Artists
Blue Note's 3 Decades Of Jazz—Volume 1: 1949-1959
(Blue Note)
1969

BF: I know it's cheating but how am I going to get all these other people on six picks? There's Art Blakey, there's Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Monk is on there, Sonny Rollins, Miles is on there, Clifford Brown... you know, I have to have those people on there [laughs]. Around that time when I was trying to figure out what was going on with this music and, you know, I didn't have a lot of money, so I had a lot of Best Of... albums. I'd go to my friend's house, and he would have such and such an album and we were all sharing. By the time I got to college I had all these room-mates and one of my room-mates had this huge collection, Charlie Parker records, things I didn't own but I got to hear a lot of.

AAJ: Is this an album that you bought back in the day?

BF: Yeah. I still have it and it has my name written on it, so nobody steals it.

AAJ: It was an incredibly fertile period in jazz's history, but do you look upon that era, the '40s through the '60s as the golden era of jazz? Do you believe in such a notion?

BF: Uhh... .it was pretty great [laughs]. But it's not music that millions of people were aware of. It's always been kind of underground. Some of the most important, historic moments in the music that we look to now and you realize, wait, that was recorded in a little club and there were probably twenty people listening to what those guys were doing.

Some of it ends up selling a lot, like Kind of Blue or A love Supreme but those guys were playing in clubs, they weren't playing stadiums or anything like that. That's what I really wish could happen more now, is where they would play in the same place every night for hours and hours and hours.

I mean, right now I'm on this tour and it's such a luxury because we're playing three nights in the same place. So, we played the night before last, and then we played last night and just the fact that we didn't have to travel, we had more rest, all our stuff was set up, so you just have more energy, and the music is affected by that. The stories of those guys on 52 Street or wherever, they would play for six weeks in one place, or six months in one place, every night, three, four, five sets. I know they were talented people, but just putting that kind of time in, being together playing in a band was just... man! No wonder the music was so good.

AAJ: The days of multiple sets in the same venue over multiple weeks have gone, but so too have the gruelling countrywide tours, where big-bands like Duke Ellington's or Count Basie's would travel by bus or train and play forty or more one-nighters in a row. That must have been exhausting.

BF: Yeah, it's brutal. I mean, I don't want to complain 'cause I'm so lucky that I'm out here playing all the time, but sometimes it's like, wow, this is ridiculous. It took me three days to get to such and such a place, a whole bunch of airplanes, and waiting, and standing in line, and carrying your stuff all over the place and then you go and you play for forty-five minutes, and it's like, what was that all about? But that forty-five minutes is so incredible.

AAJ: Fast-forward to 2019 and you make your Blue Note debut as leader with Harmony. That's some journey. How did it feel to have your album on Blue Note, this most iconic of jazz labels?

BF: It still feels like a dream. It feels sort of unreal to see that label on the album and then, you know, we were talking about that first ... 3 Decades of Jazz... album that I bought that was on Blue Note and thinking about all that history there... it is amazing



Miles Davis
My Funny Valentine
(Columbia)
1965

AAJ: You could have picked any number of Miles Davis albums... what is so special for you about this one?

BF: There was something happened when I was listenign to that, and still to this day there's this mystery... I still can't decipher what they're doing. You can't codify it. I guess you could transcribe the whole thing, everything that they played, but there's something going on in the chemistry of the way they're playing together. To me, it's just the highest level of... unexplainable, mysterious, beautiful, orchestrational architecture. Of course, they're all virtuosos but... and it's got nothing to do with that, it's about the way they're playing with each other.

The foreground and the background become... it's like this incredible orchestral thing happening. It's not like there's a soloist in front and you're like, 'wow,' of course, that's happening too, but for me what's so intriguing are all the relationships that are happening. It's like, what Herbie [Hancock] chooses to play at a particular moment, Miles plays a certain note—every sound is as important as every other sound.

That's the other thing, that first Wes Montgomery record we talked about and there's Ron Carter, and I think the next record I got was a Kenny Burrell record and Ron Carter was on that. Then I found a Sam Rivers record and Ron Carter is on that. I was like, 'Who is this guy?' And that thing with Ron Carter and Tony Williams... I don't know what to say about that, it's just unbelievable.

AAJ: With all of Miles Davis's great groups it was about a group aesthetic, the chemistry at play, but what about the way Miles played trumpet? Did that affect your approach to the guitar at all?

BF: I could say I guess it's about what these guys don't play. They make a sound and then there's room for silence or whatever else. With Miles, the pacing of things... you know? Like, if you are drawing, you draw a line, just that one line—where you put that on the page, whatever is on one side or the other, that changes the whole... I mean, if it's just a whole bunch of lines all over the place...

The sound too. When I think of Miles Davis I don't really think of trumpet. It's a sound that I hear, not an instrument. Again, it's that thing about the melody and the way he treats the melody... He'll play an idea and he gives you a chance to ponder it. Like, 'What does that mean?' Same with Monk. They have this way of showing you things. It's like they bring you into the music. Like a fine watch maker, he'll open up the back of the watch and say 'Now look at that, see that? There's this little thing there that turns around... and this does that,' and it's like these guys are not just showing you what they can do but they're showing you something that they love...

AAJ: Have you ever come across what Herbie Hancock said about that Philharmonic gig that produced My Funny Valentine? I'm not sure if it's in his autobiography or maybe Miles's, but anyway, he said that when they came off stage after that gig they were all really down because they thought they had played so badly, and that it wasn't until they listened back to the recording that they understood it was something quite special.

BF: Yeah, that's what blows my mind too, 'cause you don't know. I've definitely experienced that too. When you're in the music, whatever is in your own head, you can think, 'Man, I'm playing so great!' and then you listen back, 'Uh huh. That was just a bunch of... ' Other times there could be things going on in your mind, 'I'm trying to get this and I can't get that... ' but that's not always what's actually happening. Yeah, I heard that Herbie thing... and somebody else said that they couldn't hear each other well because it was on a big stage... Like,what? How could this possibly be?

There's also this thing where they are watching out for each other. If someone goes off the edge they will be rescued by the other guy... There's an incredible amount of trust going on. To me, it's one of the most incredibly connected ways of playing together that I've ever heard.

The other thing I should say, I hated to leave off Wayne Shorter, like, the album ESP... All the stuff with Wayne in the band. Again, it's just huge for me. For me, My Funny Valentine was sort of the beginning of that world that started to happen when Wayne came into the band.

AAJ: Then fast-forward to 2006 and suddenly you're recording with Ron Carter on the album with Paul Motian. It must have been a big thrill for you to record with this bassist that was on all those seminal albums you've mentioned.

BF: Yeah, I couldn't believe it. I've gotten to play with him quite a bit. I'm still just in awe of him, completely.



Bob Dylan
Bringing It All Back Home
(Columbia)
1965

AAJ: How old were you when Dylan first impacted you?

BF: It's weird... I had an English teacher... I guess I was in seventh grade, and it was when the very first Dylan records were coming out. He wasn't that well known at that time. This English teacher, it turns out he just passed away... I had sort of tracked him down and I wanted to write him a letter to thank him for... he would bring in these Bob Dylan records into our class, and he would say, 'Listen to this. Listen to the words—it's like poetry.' This was like, 1963? That's when I first started to hear him. There were a lot of other songs that I was hearing that he wrote. Peter, Paul and Mary would play his songs, or The Byrds, I loved The Byrds, like "Mr Tambourine Man" that they did— that was huge. They were more famous than he was.

I became a fan of him really early on and that's something that's stayed with me this whole time. For whatever other music I got into he stayed solid. The first time I got to see him live was in 1966. It was that tour where he would do the first half acoustic. It was when he had The Band with him. So, I got to see that and then I've seen him a whole bunch of times. He just keeps on... and it doesn't seem that different to Miles, there's a certain attitude about the risk he takes, the spontaneity, the way he takes things apart and puts them back together. He doesn't just figure out a routine and go with the routine. He's always off the edge. He just doesn't stay still.

Another thing on that album that I sort of realized later on, that version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" on that album, he's playing guitar but there's another guitarist, Bruce Langhorne, and if you listen closely, I realized years later how that was a model for me for a way of playing together with people. There's Dylan's playing and then Bruce Langhorne is playing these sort of little chimes behind him. He's playing a kind of melodic counterpoint to the vocal and it's actually very free and unpredictable. When I heard that later I thought, 'Oh, yeah, that's kind of how I like to play with a singer.' So, I realized how much influence just that sound had on me.

AAJ: That's very interesting. There's that great line in "Maggie's Farm" which goes 'I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.' I'm thinking specifically of an album of yours like Nashville, which a lot of people, mostly jazz purists, had a hard time trying to market, define, categorize or even accept as a valid thing for Bill Frisell to do. I wonder if that quotation from Dylan resonates with you...

BF: [Laughs] Yeah, of course it does. That was also the thing at the time it seemed like there were things in his lyrics, like a phrase, like, you're having some trouble with your parents, or some trouble, whatever, and there'd be a line from one of his songs would sort of give you comfort.

AAJ: There's a lot going on in his music on that album; it's quite rock 'n' roll in a way...

BF: Yeah, yeah. It was also that time when he was adding other instruments, the electric thing was happening a little bit... it was all just sort of exploding. But then there's that abstract thing happening too. Again, we were talking about that thing where... you can't quite figure it out. You can't codify it. You can play the song, the song is there, but there is always something unexplainable going on. It's unpredictable.

And he leaves in mistakes, that's the other thing... mistakes are amazing. You hear stories about the guys in the band not even knowing when is he starting or when is he stopping or when did he go to the bridge. They're just following along as best they can, but then it becomes this sound.



The Ventures
Surfing
(Dolton Records)
1963

AAJ: This album is very powerful. I'm trying to imagine the impact it must have had on you back in 1963.

BF: You know, I was born in 1951 and the first real awareness of the electric guitar was those kind of bands. And I was fascinated, even just visually; a lot of those albums they'd have a picture of the band on the front cover, and they've all got these Fender guitars and all these different colors, cars, all the stuff with hot rods. You know, I'm eleven, twelve years old and my imagination is just going wild at this stuff.

And just seeing the guitars... those early Fenders, like, a Stratocaster guitar or a Telecaster guitar or Jazzmaster guitar, the colors and the shapes of the guitars was just fascinating. And then that sound... again, that was the first real sound of electric guitar that I was aware of, I think. And it's instrumental music too. There were the Beach Boys around that time who I really liked too, just that sound of the harmony of their voices always got me.

AAJ: A lot of famous guitarists, people like George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Joe Walsh, Stephen Stills, Tommy Emmanuel and Carl Wilson, all said that they were influenced by the guitar sound of The Ventures.

BF: Yeah, yeah I don't see how anybody could not have been, you know. And it was a real band. The Ventures were maybe one of the first, for me... yeah, let's get a bunch of guys together and see if we can make it.. a sound together.

AAJ: It's not hard to imagine that boys all over the country were thinking the same thing—The Ventures became known as the band that launched a thousand bands. Then there is that song on the album, "Walk Don't Run" by Johnny Smith, who would give you guitar lessons a few years down the line.

BF: Oh yeah, that's so bizarre to think... you know, later I met Johnny Smith and... I mean, his version of the song is so different from The Ventures version, but just that connection back to another era. With music, time goes backwards and forwards. It doesn't always go in a logical time line.



Ornette Coleman
The Best Of Ornette Coleman (Atlantic)
1970

AAJ: This is an eight-track compilation from 1970, covering four albums from that incredible series of albums Coleman made for Atlantic in the 1960s. What do you hear in Coleman's music from this period that you selected?

BF: Oh boy... I guess... some of the things that I was saying about Bob Dylan or Miles, or Monk, the way he took familiar material and he's showing it to you in a different... he's saying, 'Look at this!' It's like things broke apart, but still all the elements are there. Incredible melody, like so direct. Melody that gets you right away. The feel of it... but it's like it's coming at you in this abstracted way that you never imagined before. It's like he gave me a way of... like, you don't have to copy what I'm doing but think about what just happened here and maybe there's a way you can find a way to do this yourself [laughs].

Like, he's taking all these things that he loved or taking his life experience and he found his own way, this completely original way of putting it out there. And then as a person, you know, the strength and the courage for him to put this forward and show it to people, you know, people didn't always appreciate it [laughs]. But just shut up and listen to it. It's like, wow, this is beautiful. It's nothing but total beauty too.

But in his music you hear all the way back to whatever you call it, folk music or whatever but then he takes it into the most outer regions of the [laughs]... outer space.

AAJ: A little like Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home...

BF: Yeah. For me, everything we've been talking about, they all so easily fit into the same world somehow.

AAJ: With regards to Ornette Coleman, do you feel like you are kindred spirits on some level, in your approach to music?

BF: Well, I wish. I mean, he's one of those people that I look up to and try to aspire to... you know, I think about him. All the people we've been talking about... it's just what I aspire to. You know, I got to spend a little time with him, and just the way that his mind was constantly... this thing with imagination. I don't know, you'd ask him a question and the answer you get would be... it was always quite a number of steps further than anything you could expect. There was always some kind of surprise going on.

AAJ: Of course, Charlie Haden was on all those Ornette Coleman albums on Atlantic and then fast-forward twenty-five years or so and you find yourself recording with Haden on those Ginger Baker albums. That must have been another pinch-yourself moment, no?

BF: [laughs] No, I know. I mean, I got to play with Charlie a lot, and Ginger too. I saw Ginger play with Cream, back in that time we were talking about. To think that someday I'd be playing with that guy, him and Charlie together... I've got to be dreaming here.

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