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Interview: Bill Frisell - Off the Deep End

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Interview: Bill Frisell - Off the Deep End

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 Mike Elizondo.

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.

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