For many of us, 6:50 a.m. on
a Monday morning would
probably be the last choice of times
to schedule an interview. But for
Grammy-winning guitarist and
composer Bill Frisell, this criminally
early time was his only opening in
the midst of a whirlwind tour, so we
jumped at the opportunity to chat
while he was waiting to board a plane
at Los Angeles International Airport.
As one of the most sought-after
guitarists in a wide variety
of styles, demand spreads him so
thin he literally doesn’t have a second
to spare. To give an idea, in
a five-week span around the time
of our interview, he debuted and
conducted a score based on Allen
Ginsberg’s Kaddish (commissioned
by and performed at the Park
Avenue Armory in New York City),
then flew out to Oregon the next
day to lead three group projects—a
quartet performing the music of
Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West,
a quintet performing the music of
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 twoevening
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
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
Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Bitches
Brew, two albums that had a profound
impact on the budding guitarist. “Those
records are gigantic inspirations,” says
Frisell. “For me, it was sort of like The
Beatles, as far as being huge and basically
changing my life.” Floratone’s self-titled
debut was released several years ago and
received critical acclaim. The collaborative
recently released the follow-up,
Floratone II, which also features appearances
by industry legends Jon Brion and
In this interview, Frisell divulges the
inner workings of this album, clues us in
as to how he manages to juggle so many
intense projects simultaneously, and tells us
about the 16-second delay that got away.
Floratone really blurs the line
between improvisation and composition.
Can you explain the band’s
unique writing process?
Of all the things I’ve done, Floratone is
definitely the most studio-involved. Most
of my own music is more of a documentation
of a band or some composition
that I write, and it sort of captures whatever
happens in a particular couple of
days. The germ or the seed of Floratone
comes from this wide-open improvising
with Matt Chamberlain and myself—it’s
a completely spontaneous thing. We’d go
in the studio for a day or two, and put
hours of stuff on tape, and then just leave
Tucker Martine and Lee Townsend with
this big mess of stuff. We give them the
tapes and let them go wherever they want
to, and it’s wild to hear what comes back.
Did you edit the tapes before presenting
the music to them?
They just take the whole thing. So much
of the responsibility is up to Lee and
Tucker to figure out a way to get it all into
a manageable one hour of music. It’s kind
of a luxury. If it were my own record, then
I would be sweating over every little second
of it and worrying about this and that.
Floratone II happened over an even longer
period than Floratone.
This approach must involve an extremely
high level of trust from all parties involved.
All of these people are super close-and-trusted
friends I’ve worked with a lot. Lee, I’ve done
about 30 albums with. I haven’t done that
many with Tucker, but we’ve known each
other for around 25 years. Floratone is like a
band, but for those guys, their instrument is
the studio. This is a way to let them go full
tilt into what they do. At the same time, I’m
going full tilt into what Matt and I do.
Did you try to steer the Floratone II sessions
into a different direction than Floratone?
I didn’t. Lee and Tucker were the ones
that made those decisions about what was
going to be on it, so much of the direction
is really pointed by what they chose.
I’m not sure; I guess I’d have to ask them
if they actually consciously thought about
trying to make it different.
Did you or Matt present any guidelines
like tempo, key, or feel to each other
before starting a jam?
There was no discussion at all, which was
great. It was like, bam, and we just start
playing. There was no stress or anything
and it was really fun. Matt is like an idea
machine—every second something amazing
would come out of him.
You’re also involved in the process again
later, right? You compose string and horn
parts to be layered, and you and Matt
also add more guitars and drums.
It happens in all these layers. It starts with
just improvising, then editing, and then we
go back and start adding more guitars and
drums. I wrote those string and horn parts
and then they went to L.A. I wasn’t there
for that either. That was weird, too, because
I think the last thing I did was write those
melodies. After we recorded that, Matt put
on some more drums and they did some
more editing. They went to L.A. and Jon
Brion put some stuff on and Mike Elizondo
put bass on. And then they mixed the
whole thing and I didn’t hear it until it was
completely finished. It was kind of far out.
It must be a trip to hear the final product.
I won’t even remember what we played and
then a couple months later we’ll get together
and they’ll have this thing whittled down to
an hour’s worth of music. I think at one point,
even a year went by without me hearing anything.
It was like, “Wow, where did all that
come from? I don’t even remember playing it.”
When you heard the final outcome, at
any point, did you think to yourself,
“That’s not what I had in mind at all?”
No. I didn’t have any preconceptions about
what I wanted it to be. I just hoped that it
would be cool. It was really fun and surprising
when I would hear it after all that time.
So when you were improvising, you
didn’t have any specific harmonic frameworks
in mind that you expected them
to later work with?
No, not really. There are certain things
that happen maybe a little bit later in the
writing process where there are harmonies
that were more intentional. But absolutely
nothing was figured out beforehand. I
didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to play this
chord progression or that.” There was
really no thought.