FEATURE > BILL FRISELL
John Lennon, and his 858 Quartet, which
is most often set up as a string quartet, but
with guitar replacing one of the two violins.
He performed a solo concert over a two-evening run at the Portland Jazz Festival,
and then a few days later headed to Japan
to do concerts with Vinicius Cantuária.
He returned to the States to tour the
West Coast with his Beautiful Dreamers
group (headlining a night at the L.A.
Philharmonic), and then jumped over to the
East Coast with folk singer Sam Amidon,
while hitting points in between as a guest
with the Dale Bruning Trio and performing
music he’d cowritten for the 2012 film The
Great Flood. In just over a month’s span,
he’d taken on enough musical personalities
to make Sybil the poster child for normalcy.
While Frisell is most often classified as
a jazz guitarist, there’s no question that he’s
infinitely more forward thinking than the
many jazzers who focus on improvising
over standards armed solely with a Gibson
ES- 175 and a Polytone amp. Sure, Frisell
can fulfill his jazzbo duties by navigating
the hardest of chord changes with the best
of them, as he’s done on “Moment’s Notice”
with none other than McCoy Tyner, and
when tearing through John Coltrane’s “26-
2” with his 858 Quartet. But he unapologetically incorporates disparate influences
like Americana, country, avant-garde, and
contemporary classical into his music, and
has no inhibitions about whipping out a
looper, distortion pedal, or a sound freezer.
In addition to working with a “who’s who”
of musicians across virtually all styles—
Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, John Zorn,
Elvin Jones, and Ron Carter, among many
others—he’s scored films, including Finding
Forrester and American Hollow, and had his
music featured on several TV shows.
Frisell started out on the clarinet but
picked up the guitar after being inspired by
the pop music he’d heard on the radio. He
attended Berklee College of Music during
the ’70s, which was a particularly fertile time
in the school’s history. During this decade,
Mike Stern (who met his wife Leni through
Frisell) and John Scofield were also students
at Berklee, and Pat Metheny was on the
faculty. By the ’80s, all four guitarists were
becoming jazz icons by ushering in the era of
modern jazz guitar—reshaping the sound of
jazz by breaking certain taboos that crippled
the genre’s continued viability in the changing musical landscape. They took a page
Photo by MIchael Wilson
from the Miles Davis playbook and incorporated influences like pop and rock, among
other styles, and made it okay to use effects.
What notably differentiates Frisell from
his jazz peers is that he’s been exalted to
royalty not based on virtuosic ability but,
rather, on his pioneering sonic vision.
Frisell’s ethereal sound is instantly recognizable, and though you’ll hear tons of musicians who are obviously influenced by him,
you’ll rarely hear them parroting his licks.
Frisell’s style is more about individuality,
conception, and politely giving the middle
finger to the stylistic rulebook.
One of Frisell’s recent convention-defying
ventures is Floratone, a collaborative ensemble
project that takes a recorded improvisation
and—with time and a lot of studio-generated
revisions—morphs it into something unusual
and unexpected. The sessions start with Frisell
and drummer Matt Chamberlain just letting
tape roll as they freely improvise. These master
tapes are then put in the hands of producers
Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, who rummage through the files to dissect choice parts
for compositional repurposing.
This studio reconstruction is somewhat reminiscent of Teo Macero’s work on
96 PREMIER GUITAR JUNE 2012