ECM's Lyrical "House Guitarist"

By Josef Woodard,
Guitar Player,
19(4) [Issue 184] April 1985

Frisell, who has appeared on enough records on the German-based ECM label in the past few years to be tagged that company's in-house guitarist, approaches jazz guitar playing from several angles simultaneously, and thus ultimately from an angle all his own. Take, for instance, his contributions to drummer Paul Motian's 1981 release Psalm, which along with bassist Eberhard Weber's earlier Fluid Rustle served to introduce the new guitar voice in a major way. On the cross section of tunes, Frisell creates a sort of liquid, swelling underpainting of broken chords and close intervals, sudden scale fragments pealing across the track, and halting solos that are phrased like sparse poems-terse, intriguing kernels of ideas bathed in pregnant space.

There is nothing smug or patternized in Frisell's playing, but it is rather a cryptic, shifting code of melodic and timbral expressions. For the elusive language of his style, you can always sense Frisell's presence on a record. Part of that signature has to do with his personalized use of tools; he sparingly incorporates a delay, a volume pedal, a distortion unit, and other assorted devices into his sound. In addition, he weaves in purely physical abuses-scraping and sawing the strings with the pick, yanking at the neck of his guitar-that seem dearer to the heart of rock and roll than to jazz. In the end, though, it is not Frisell's equipment that makes the imprint, but his economy, aural awareness, lyricism, and wit.

Pat Metheny has been well aware of Frisell's individuality since the mid '70s, when they were peers at Boston's Berklee School of Music. "He just cracks me up; when I hear him, I'm on the floor," Metheny comments affectionately. "I think that he and Adrian Bellew should do a duo - an ambient, environmental guitar duo. I don't know where they get it. It just kills me, though, both of them. What's so exciting about Frisell, too, is that when it comes time to play 'Stella By Starlight,' he can do it. That's not something that a lot of those cats who are dealing with those kinds of sounds can say. He's got an incredibly thorough harmonic background."

It was through Metheny's introduction that Frisell was united with drummer Paul Motian, who seems to be a stylistic soulmate in terms of expressive freedom. That relationship has carried on through four Motian group albums (notably ECM's Psalm and It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago), as well as on Frisell's latest ECM solo album, Rambler. Bill has also appeared on LPs by saxophonists Jan Garbarek and Tim Berne, drummer Bob Moses, Eberhard Weber, and an as-yet-unreleased duo project with guitarist Vernon Reid. From 1981 to '84, the guitarist caused a great deal of excitement during his East Coast club dates with Stone Tiger, a trio featuring bassist Percy Jones and drummer Mike Clark. In addition to concerts with Motian, Frisell has recently been appearing with guitarist John Scofield, bassist Mark Johnson, and drummer Peter Erskine; the quartet plans to record this spring.

On the basis of his widening sphere of influence, Frisell would appear to be on the crest of a wave. But speaking in his apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, the tall, soft spoken guitarist proved to be surprisingly humble and self-effacing: "Part of why I sound the way I do is that I tried real hard to play like John McLaughlin, who I love, but I just don't have the technique to do it. I finally gave up, right? So I end up implying things that I can't just come right out and play. I can't play bebop like Pat Martino. Iíll play a couple of notes and try to just get the essence. That's dangerous, too, because I really need to improve what I can do physically. I hope I don't get the attitude of, oh, what I'm doing is great, because I can't do something else. But then I hear that in a lot of the great players; maybe it's what they don't and can't play, what they do with what little they have. I mean, I don't think Miles Davis has the technique that Doc Severinsen has, but that doesnít keep him from playing great music.

"I guess that has something to do with just my personality," he laughs. "Like, it's hard for me to talk sometimes, so that probably comes through, too. When I play, I want to be sure that there's some reason for it to be there, so sometimes Iíll wait. I don't want to just run off with a bunch of stuff; I like to have every note mean something. I have the same attitude, whether I'm playing a solo or comping. I just try to listen to whatever is happening and go with that, rather than play something that's worked out or preconceived. Paul Motian was a big influence on me that way. He's constantly changing and trying to make every note mean something. He won't play something just to play it."

As far as guitar influences are concerned, Frisell has done a fair amount of intensive listening to musicians as diverse as Hendrix and Jim Hall. "Jim Hall plays in a more traditional sense," he notes, "but there's still this kind of danger happening. He doesn't hold set things. He's a big influence on what I do now, even though the sound I use is drastically different. When you get to the very basics of what I'm playing, I just stole it from Jim Hall - the voicings, the attitude of where to put things."

Frisell's placement of ideas is only one facet of his oblique style; the actual shape and texture of his oddly positioned riffs are equally important. His natural feel for adventure and abstraction seems to coincide with a desire to make the guitar sound extra-guitaristic. Manipulating his array of devices, Bill will change the timbre and color of his instrument within a given tune to conjure images such as a pedal steel metamorphosing into a clarinet and other slippery entities.

Though he claims it's an unconscious effort, Bill admits that there are characteristic traits from his past seeping into his current vocabulary. "My first instrument was clarinet", he explains. "I played it for about 10 years - into college. So there is something about the wind, the feeling of air going through the note. I think that has to do with the way I use the volume pedal, just trying to get that breath into a phrase, a note, or whatever. Rather than just it, you can go for this kind of buzzing, vibrating feeling."

The changeover from reeds to strings marked Frisell's musical coming-of-age, his finding the compelling inner voice. Though born in Baltimore, he moved to Denver at an early age. In fourth grade, he found studying clarinet at his mother's behest. "It was a few years later that I started to play guitar," he recalls. "They were separate in terms of motivation: I just played the guitar for fun; I couldn't read or anything. On the clarinet, I was technically good, but it didn't really have any emotional meaning for me. But I had a very strict clarinet teacher first started, and I realize now that a lot of my musical foundation came from all the basic things he wouldn't let me get by on until the next week. That wasn't so pleasant an experience, but I'm glad it happened. The teacher was also the head of the marching band, so I played in that from fourth grade through high school. I hated it, but there was something to be gained there, too-the rhythm, the time. On the guitar, it was like freedom. I could just improvise and play, so I naturally wanted to go in that direction. I started playing something like a Ventures record; 'Pipeline' was one of the first tunes I learned.' "Pipeline" seems a strange launching point for a guitarist who now almost steadfastly eschews repetitive riffs, but Frisell acknowledges the cumulative effect of the various musical styles he's worked in. The instrumental music of the Ventures and other groups led, not unnaturally, to a taste for the blues and for rhythm and blues. "East High School in Denver was mixed racially," Frisell adds, "so there were a lot of vocal groups, Temptations-type bands. I ended up playing in soul bands, and that seemed close to the blues. Some of the guys in Earth, Wind & Fire - Philip Bailey, Larry Dunn, Andrew Woolfork - were at my high school. We were in rival groups, but we played in the school band together and had jam sessions."

In that formative musical stage, Frisell was blithely testing the waters, a guitarist dabbling in different modes and entertaining the notion of pursuing the clarinet into the symphonic realm. But when the call of jazz took hold, his priorities shifted and narrowed. "Somewhere in high school I heard [guitarist] Wes Montgomery; it sounded kind of like the blues, you know. There was one radio station that played my favorite things - [saxophonist] John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, [guitarist] Kenny Burrell. " Frisell's sudden, fierce affection for jazz was cultivated by Denver-based teacher Dave Bruning, who ushered the impressionable youth into this brave new musical world. "I remember him asking me if I knew who [saxophonist] Charlie Parker was. I thought he was a guitarist. He told me about all these people-Miles Davis and [pianist] Bill Evans, that whole thing. That was the point where I really started closing off the other stuff. This same teacher gave me a lot of other technical things that I had on the clarinet but was lacking on the guitar. He made the guitar seem like more of a legitimate instrument, not just a poppy thing."

Diving headlong into the jazz bag, Frisell sold his Fenders - a Mustang and a Jaguar - to buy a custoomized Gibson ES-175 from Bruning. Almost inevitably, he wound up at Boston's Berklee School of Music, where he gained valuable insights from teachers such as Michael Gibbs and John Damian. "But even more important than the teachers," he says, "was the environment, especially to someone coming from Colorado. There were millions of players, and you could always have jam sessions. There were a few little clubs we could play for five dollars a night or whatever; there were a lot more opportunities than in Colorado."

It was during this time that Bill sought musical tutelage from his hero, Jim Hall: 'In the few lessons I took with Jim, part of what he had me do was harmonize scales-first just with triads, but then with random intervals. In any key, if a certain group of intervals has a sound that I like, I can use that in the whole scale. So instead of thinking of a chord form, I'll have whatever scale is available and do whatever intervallic combinations I like. And then sometimes I'll stick in another note that's not supposed to be there, but if you mean to play it. . .", he concludes with a devious grin.

Frisell has never quite become a book thumping jazz purist, but he had a spell of filtering out things that were not within in the jazz realm. "I was really into bebop," he says, and I couldn't see past like 1960. I really had a closed mind to other music. And so when I got to Boston in 1971 for the first time-I had two stints there-all these guys were playing rock and roll. I didn't like it, but then a few years later something broke in me. I opened up and realized I'd been shutting off what had caused me to play in the first place-the Ventures, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. It's ridiculous not to use every conceivable thing that you have. But then that period when I was so close-minded was also valuable because I got pretty deep into all that other music, whereas maybe I wouldn't have otherwise."

Frisell began putting together the ingredients of his trademark airborne guitar sound in the mid '70s, and he often used his ingenuity to explore hidden ranges of timbral colors that are available with limited equipment resources. About 1975, he swapped his ES- 175 for a sad-looking, late-60s Gibson SG that served him well for several years, despite his penchant for tugging on the neck: "That neck is real flexible. There's hardly anything holding it to the body, so I bend it a lot. I'm still waiting for it to come off in my hands. It goes out of tune; if I play a chord, maybe a certain note will go out. By moving the neck a bit, I can bring different notes in and out of tune. I like that.' Combined with a delay unit, this hands-on technique can result in some disarming, woozy frequency sweeps. "I use a long echo on the delay," Bill explains, "and by bending the neck, it's like a manual chorus. When the machine is playing in the same time as the note you're fooling with, they rub against each other.'

Ironically, it wasn't until he went to Europe that word of Frisell's unique playing style spread to the record-buying public. Disenchanted with the Boston club circuit, Frisell flew to Belgium, where Eberhard Weber introduced him to Manfred Eicher, the guiding light of the ECM label. While he did not become Eicher's right-hand guitarist overnight, the seed was planted. Like ECM guitarists John Abercrombie and Terje Rypdal, Frisell blends an almost folk-like melodic coolness with toothy turns into dense, dangerous harmonic areas, creating heartfelt passion with an underbite.

By late 1981, Frisell had two ECM projects in the wings - Psalm, and his own multitracked, mostly acoustic solo album, In Line, which has never been released in the United States. It's a very open, airy record that suggests little of the more hard-edged sound Frisell puts across on other sessions. Though he doesn't disregard the record artistically, Bill tends to feel less than ecstatic about his debut: "What was so hard about In Line was that in a few short days, I wanted to say something big or have a wide range of things. I wanted to play everything I possibly could, and I ended up with something less." Frisell's natural feel for layering acoustic and electric guitars is most evident on the patchwork version of Nino Rota's "Juliet Of The Spirits" from the anthology album Amarcord Nino Rota.

On most of his work for ECM, Frisell keeps his ears attuned to outside input: "I get a lot from people such as [avant-garde guitarists] Fred Frith and Derek Bailey. I don't listen to that music that much, but sometimes I hear something that I can put into my own thing. I listen to stuff on the radio, like some background guitarist on a Michael Jackson record. I just love Prince's stuff."

Frisell's own guitar textures have naturally been paralleled to those of Terje Rypdal. "I guess I'm compared to him a lot," he notes, "but I never tried to figure out what he does the way I did with Jim Hall or some horn players. But just hearing him, I could relate to his music, and I probably got something from it. This might sound weird, but I think the similarity comes from us having similar role models-Jimi Hendrix and whoever. I can hear that in Terje's playing; he's not afraid to let that come out."

Nor is Frisell afraid to break into new sonic vistas through adventures in electronics. Just within the past year, he has expanded his equipment to further his sonic possibilities: "I just had the SG and an Ovation steel-string; that was it. Then I got a Fender Vintage Stratocaster - a'57 reissue model-a Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer, another '60s SG, and an Ovation nylon-string. It was stuff I've always wanted, but now it's a little confusing. I go back and forth from the Stratocaster to this and that. Each guitar does a certain thing that I like."

Walking into Frisell's music room amply attests to a good deal of recent acquisition. Several guitar effects and assorted recording equipment are strewn around the center of his operations-his Music Man 112 RD amp. Next to his old trusty devices - the DeArmond volume pedal, an MXR Distortion +, and a Yamaha analog delay - are a Boss compressor, an Ibanez DM-2000 delay, an Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay unit, and an MXR Pitch Transposer. Considering this broad cache of musical tools, Frisell would seem to be all the more prepared to assemble another solo album in the multitracking mode of his debut.

For Rambler, though, Bill put together an unconventional team of players. Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and drummer Paul Motian were apt enough choices within the ECM framework, but Frisell wanted something texturally different for the bottom end. Thus he hired electric bassist Jerome Harris and Bob Stewart, who provides meaty, gut-level tuba for the Arthur Blythe band. Tuba? Frisell admits that part of his decision was due to nostalgia - his renewed interest in Sousa marches, a trend in jazz posited on Pat Metheny's latest album, First Circle [ECM, 1-250081], as well as in music by Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, and others. Frisell defends the tuba's timbral potency: "The attack Bob gets makes it so clear where the beat is. But then the tone is so fat, it's amazing; he can play bass, but also melody. Jerome and Bob are really sensitive, and at the same time they've got that funk happening. I imagine it will be easy to get the two going at the same time. I hope they both feel free to really play without trampling on each other."

Frisell values his chance to interact with other musicians on the new LP: "I like having other players to bounce off of. I'm hoping this shows more of the aggressive side of my playing. It's easier to get things out when you're reacting to other people. Just being alone on In Line, I was limited in a way. It doesn't work when I consciously tell myself to do something. It just has to come."

Splashing flourishes and reptilian bits of melody into his music, Frisell keeps a suspenseful edge on the content of his parts.

Given this penchant, he would appear to be a likely candidate for effects overkill, nabbing whatever technology is available for exploring the new and bizarre. To his credit, though, Frisell is a stickler for keeping sounds emotionally charged. "Now there are a lot more colors available," he says. "But with the possibilities for sound that I have, I don't have any excuses - and that's scary. When l just had the SG and one little delay box, I really tried to get the most out of it. Id like to be at the same point with this new array of stuff, so that I'm right on the edge of what the new technology can do, rather than sort of swimming in it all. I don't like the machines to make a slave out of me.

"Take the Roland synthesizer. I'm trying to keep the humanness in it. Some people would say that it's not a real guitar. It's tempting to turn on the synthesizer and go with that - and I want to do that, too - but what interests me most is what happens in between the synthesizer function and the real guitar sound, keeping that human quality involved. It opens up a lot of possibilities. You can tune the synthesizer to a different pitch, to a fifth above what the guitar is playing, or anything. It's like a harmonizing effect, but the synthesizer gives a lot truer pitch."

If there is a common denominator in the spectrum of Bill's projects over the past few years, it's his willingness to experiment. But even as he delves increasingly into situations requiring more effects, he still knows the value of sheer unabetted musical fiber.

"Almost a year ago, I did a solo concert for the first time-talk about scared," Frisell shakes his head. "There was no reason to be scared; there weren't that many people there, and they were all friendly, but it was hard. I probably learned more in that one hour than I have in a long time. Some of the pieces were my own tunes, and some were just improvised. I did have crutches like a rhythm machine and a Casio doing a drone. But it was challenging to do that."

Ultimately, Bill Frisell has made a contribution to the state of modern jazz guitar by introducing a stylistic hybrid made up of harmonic sophistication and a post-Hendrix flair for purely sonic abstraction. His playing intrigues by its elliptical design rather than by technical sleight-of-hand-the mark of a poet rather than a deft craftsman. It's an impressive musical approach that is both avant-garde and accessible. But, according to Frisell, this is no time to rest on laurels: 'I don't think I've arrived anywhere. I hope I don't ever arrive. I hope it keeps changing." Spoken like one who refuses to believe it's all been done before.

1985 GPI Publications

transcribed by david cooper orton, 8-x-98

Also available:
a miscellany of frisellia, a continually expanding bibliography of interviews/articles re: Bill