A Shy Guy With A Guitar

words by Brian Morton, taken from The Wire, No. 36 Feb 1987, pp10-11,58

Tssa - Atssa -

Atss Rowwp!

Pa Da Bap Brang

Alang (Alang)

Pardon our intrusion,
but here are the facts
on a most sought-after
gentleman of the frets

THE PAUL MOTIAN Trio finish their Bass Clef set with a little further damage up at the treble end.

It takes a few minutes to catch a word with Bill Frisell. Drummer Motian's the first one out to the bar, a little barrelling munchkin in a hooded parka, chortling with delight. Joe Lovano, the tenor player, shambles along in his wake like an insomniac bear in autumn. They could almost be auditioning for the next John Irving book. Only distant signs of Frisell, though the tallest of the three, who's making more diffident progress through the crush. Twenty feet away and it looks as if he's started mumbling mantras - OM MANI PADME HUM. Close up, it turns out to be no more than good manners: "Um...ah...pardon me...uh pardon me." Frisell's almost terminally polite and unbelivably reticent about his work. He takes routine compliments like Nobel Prizes. The handshake when it comes belongs to an eye surgeon, not to the perpetrator of those clanging chords. The prospect of An Interview clearly alarms. You almost feel like getting out the consent forms.
Of the trio, he's the one who doesn't sound the way he looks. Motians's all, well, motion; jovial-sinister, goonish, a one man Labyrinth; start tapping your foot and the hidden switch tumbles you into some uncountable run of bars, a waltz, a wounded canter, back where you were. Lovano's roaring at the unseasonal rhythms keeping him from his shuteye.
The don't just come off the kit. There's Frisell's guitar as well, an incredible kettle of winds you'd never associate with the man boiling it. He's reminiscent - and its not meant unkindly - of the Playboy hick kicking over the traces: "Dang it, maw, I'm goin' to the city. I want a telephone, sex, blue hair." Frisell is every guy in glasses with low-decible personality who one day picked up the guitar and felt A Mysterious Force running up and down his arms.

THERE HAS TO BE A foreground, though, and Frisell's is archetypal, heartland stuff. Such stories blur so quickly and easily that you begin to lose the borders of figure on ground. In one of his novels Peter Handle emphasises the widening gap between the biographical conventions and individual destiny, the input and the signal, by capping up all the click words: It works:
BORN in Baltimore in 1951, GREW UP in Colorado; clarinet in MARCHING BANDS; music lessons from his parents, THEORY, lots of PRACTICE; one day DISCOVERED the blues, learnt to play GUITAR; couldn't put all the theory to work on the new stuff till a sympathetic TEACHER showed him how. The rest, though, as Handke might sat, is mystery.
Hunting influences is as trivial a pursuit as they've devised, but its got to be done.
"When I was 16,17, I was listening to a lot of surfing music" in Colorado they know about surfing? - "a lot of English rock. Then I saw Wes Montgomery and somehow that kind of turned me round and fitted it all together." There was the obligatory stint in soul bands but increasingly Montgomery's example dictated a shift towards jazz. "Jim Hall made a big impression on me and I took some lessons with him. I suppose I play the kind of harmonic things Jim Hall would play but with a sound that comes from Jimi Hendrix".
Hendrix represents Annunciation, Incarnation and Crucifixion all in one to guitar players, a promise, an example and a very precise demarcation of limits. To call him an influence is a bit like saying Adolphe Sax made a big impression on Bird.
Frisell's no self conscious Young Lion, no Jordanian revolutionary. There's not much in the way of hammering-on or pulled-off chords; its basically fret and pick stuff on a ten-year old Gibson SG - we all fret and pick when we're far from home - with a modest array of pedals that would hardly have got Jerry Garcia out of the stalls. What's really distinctive is Frisell's feel for the shape of songs, for their architecture; it's a virtuosity of deep structure rather than surface, competence rather than `performance'.
With the trio, he's ostensibly doing the work of the leader's music. Yet there's a strong sense that Frisell's role in the group is as a second, or re-, composer, a gifted editor perhaps, filtering ideas not just technically but architectonically. If it sounds abstract, it's no more so than a map or groundplan; this is abstraction you can find your way round by. The trio seems a perfect balance of forces "Out there" - which is Colorado there wasn't much jazz around , so New York beckoned. There were TOUGH TIMES there, enrollment in a secret college of office-cleaning musicians until the PHONE CALL came from Motian (prompted by Frisell's pal Pat Metheny).
"With Paul, there's so much history, so much of that tradition. But there's so many other things as well. That's what makes it so fascinating and never lets it go stale, because I do like to play with other people who are completely different. I really like to be in drastically different line-ups.
The big thrill of the British end of the tour was an encounter up in Leicester.
"Do you know this guy Gavin Bryars? He took this piece of mine `Throughout', just this little 8-bar tune with eight chords, and he wrote this incredible piece around it. It just killed me when I heard the tape. Sometimes I'll have a dream about music, how I wish it would be. He takes these little bits of what I'd done and stretches it into something incredible."
In Line, the ECM solo album where `Throughout' surfaces, shows the same kind of modesty that allows him to take such pleasure from Bryars's working of his piece. Frisell shows no instinct for either display or embellishment. In Line is a sketchbook, full of ideas that may reapper and grow, sometimes close to Steve Lacy's ideal of `instant standards'. Frisell's due ventures with saxophonist Tim Berne and Decoding Society person Vernon Reid are debates, conversations about form. Currently, he's raving about a recent Braxton-Derek Bailey concert he caught; it's the understanding he admires so much and the ability to listen to each other, to take forward with equal conviction what someone else has proposed. Frisell does the odd solo concert - "They're just hAWrrifying" - but misses that to and fro that he gets as a sideman (his term). The guitar work on the new Paul Bley album is a perfect instance.

TOURING, NOW HE'S A dad, appeals less and less (and the recent tour took on Marco Polo proportions). Back home, he's spending more time writing than practising and he's putting tgether anew band to give the new stuff an airing; they're old friends, a cellist, drummer and bassist, none of them known over here. Its a NEW DEPARTURE for him and he glows with anticipation.
You get the idea that notice and acclaim genuinely don't figure that much except as a means of keeping the ideas turning over. If you're lucky recognition means you can do the next thing, not carry on with the last. All in all, he's happy wiith the way people respond to his work. Isn't there, though, still this old, inbuilt suspicion and prejudice about the guitar in jazz?
"Oh, that's just when people want to put music in boxes. You look at someone like Charlie Christian. And then Jim Hall; he was good enough to play with Sonny Rollins. And John Coltrane, he asked Wes Montgomery to be in his band."
He has to stop there, shyly shrugging away from any imputation that this is his rightful company.

Bill Frisell's recordings include: (with Tim Berne) ...theoretically (minor music); Smash And Scatteration (minor music); (solo) In Line (ECM); Paul Bley (w/ Surman, Frisell, Motian) Fragments (ECM)

Copyright The WIRE magazine, 1987

For more Bill Frisell information, visit David Cooper Orton's miscellany of frisellia or the Bill Frisell Song Finder