Interview: Jazz Guitarist Bill Frisell


That is some serious jazz-face. Photo by Ralph Gibson.

The Art of the (Frisell) Trio

Interview By Michael D. Ayers

Tonight marks the first time Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian will perform together as a trio in a live setting. All three are widely regarded as masters of their craft, with Carter’s resume including names like Dolphy, Miles, Hancock, Shorter and Montgomery on the list, while Motian has been “hittin’ the skins” with luminaries such as Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden and Marilyn Crispell for decades.

To get those two in the same room together was what Bill Frisell implied, a dream come true. Frisell has a very calculated, yet soft, humble way of speaking. But above all, he’s unabashedly a music fan, who loves playing. Yet for all the accolades he throws towards his bandmates, he himself has developed one of the most distinct sounds in the jazz world. There’s an unpronounced airiness to his playing, where it’s easy on the ears, but simultaneously complex. He bends and twists notes effortlessly, even when riffing on standards such as “You Are My Sunshine.”

SOTC caught up with Frisell via phone at his current home of Seattle last week to discuss New York, his latest trio work, and getting to play with a few of his idols for the first time.

It seems like these near week runs, are somewhat frequent.

Yeah, I’m very lucky. Over the last few years, at least a couple weeks with my own band, and a few weeks with Paul Motian. And now this, too. And just to get to play in one place for more than one night, in these times, is so unusual.

Anything that you particularly look forward to, when you come back to New York?

Well, so many things. My daughter lives there for now, for one thing. I left New York, in 1989, when I moved to Seattle. At the time, I was just burnt on the whole city–I just wanted to get out. But gradually, I think my love has grown. I’m in a luxurious position–I’m always working, I always have a place to stay. I know it’s a dream situation; an ideal way to be in New York. Usually I’ll be staying real close to where the gig is, and I can just walk everywhere.

So you just show up and take advantage of the goodness.

And I don’t take that for granted. It’s a pretty cool thing, and I get a good taste of being there. Most gigs I do, are one night here and there; I’m traveling all the time. The other thing about New York, in what we were saying before, is that settling in one place; it’s so much healthier for the music.

You could probably see changes throughout each night, or at least get into certain rhythms depending on the musicians you are playing with.

Definitely. You know, years ago when guys would play for a month at a time in places, music was on such a high.

Your idea of the “Frisell Trio” has shifted over the years; I was wondering what’s new and exciting for you, in collaborating with Ron and Paul?

Well, I feel like I’m dreaming- and flipping out, thinking about playing with them live. We did a record, and I thought that was a dream come true- to get them in the studio, even for just a day and a half. And that went by in just a blink of an eye. But, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to do it live with them- for the same reason – the music will have a chance to grow; I can’t wait to see what happens.

You guys cut that record in a day and a half?

I mean, it was really quick, the way a lot of them are. For a long long time, I had a dream in getting them together. They hadn’t really played much; I think there was an Andrew Hill record they played together on in the 60’s- they might have done a gig at some point. They’re both so important for me, in my musical life. They’re some of the first people I heard when I got into jazz music. My life, or music wouldn’t be the same.

Ron Carter, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell

I was looking at Ron’s resume, and it’s pretty intimidating just to think about.

The first jazz record that I tried to listen to and learn something from was this Wes Montgomery album–a song called “Bumpin’ on Sunset.” I had to learn that for a high school talent show. The band director gave me the record to go home and listen to, and that was just an opening of the door into the world of jazz. I don’t think I noticed at the time that the bass player was Ron Carter. From that record, I bought a Kenny Burrell record and he was on that, and then I bought a Miles record and he was on that, and on and on. He’s like the backbone for this major, important work to me. So to get to meet him and play with him–I still think I’m kind of dreaming.

The same thing–I heard Paul live in 1968 when he came to Denver, and he was playing with Charles Lloyd’s band. And all those records I’d buy, he’d be on. Paul I’ve been playing with since 1981–I haven’t played with Ron as much, but Paul one of the longest relationships I’ve had.

Is that relationship with Paul, a pretty well oiled machine?

Well the thing about it with him, I think that’s why its lasted so long- there is nothing at all predictable about playing with him- I never know what’s going to happen. Its hard, in the midst of playing, everything feels like its happening for the first time.

For the album you three recorded last year, was there any certain process that went into selecting the songs that you recorded?

Like I said before, we did it fast–no rehearsals or anything, and I felt lucky to get those guys for a couple of days. We recorded things that people knew to a point, and we could play on the spot. I didn’t write a bunch of complicated stuff to figure out; I made sure that it could be done on first or second takes. But another thing with Ron–we played “You Are My Sunshine.” I wrote an abstract part at the beginning of the song. I asked him “should we run over it?” and he said “just surprise me.” He’s so fast, and the whole record sort of went like that.


Are there any similarities in the way that you and Ron approach playing?

I hope so. [Laughs.] If there is anything I’m doing that is similar, I’d be happy. But I don’t know. Its’ really just about listening–when we did the recording; I was so happy to see them together. I never remembered my attention being that far away. I was just getting off listening and watching those guys play. One thing I learned from them, it has so little to do with them showing off what they do–they type of groups that they associate them with–the whole is more than the sum of the parts. But their music is always about making something happen, with what’s around them. Some sort of chemical reaction happens. Its not that Ron is a great bass player–it’s that he’s a great musician, and sees the whole picture.

The three piece as a collective probably has certain styles, certain forms and interactions that are solely unique for you, as opposed to a duo, quartet, or any other combination. What are the advantages of a trio for you?

For me, it’s incredibly flexible. Whatever is in my imagination, I can go for it. I like other situations too, but, the trio–I don’t know, it’s just kind of open ended. When you think of different kinds of trios: Bill Evans, or even Jimi Hendrix–the range of what can happen means there are no real boundaries. You’re not really stuck in one way. I look at the guitar as more like a miniature orchestra that enables you to mimic almost anything. Playing in a trio sets you up to go in all those directions.

These days there seems to be a notion of folk and jazz being separate forms, and genres. But you’ve always seem to make sure that these were blurred together, and there might not be as clear cut a distinction as people might think.

When I first started to listen to jazz, anything was possible–there wasn’t any rules. I noticed right away the tunes that Sonny Rollins would choose, or Charlie Parker–whatever the music they used as a springboard, was coming from whatever was around them. It doesn’t seem unusual to me to use what I like, or what I know. The first album that I bought that Paul was on, was a Jarrett record called Somewhere Before (1968). On that one there was a Bob Dylan song, and some kind of ragtime thing. What I’m doing now, I’m just copying what they did.

I think I’m just sort of following along in what jazz is. I think people forget it’s already been done in a lot of ways.

Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian play the Blue Note Tuesday December 4th through Sunday December 9th. Two sets each night, 8 and 1030pm. Reservations are required- $35 for a table, $20 at the bar.

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