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Interview: Bill Frisell - Off the Deep End

Interview: Bill Frisell - Off the Deep End

Considering your jazz background, where mastery of harmony is a requisite, and the fact that you’re still currently playing difficult, chord-changeintensive Coltrane tunes like “26-2” and “Moment’s Notice,” you probably can’t un-know what you know. How are you able to let go of your harmonic awareness and just play freely?
I think that having played those kinds of tunes definitely has a huge impact on what my instincts are about—I’m not thinking that way but I know it. It’s not a conscious thing. No matter how abstract I get or whether I’m thinking about chords or not, having had the experience of playing that kind of harmony definitely had an effect on me. That’s why I keep playing that song “26-2,” to get it to the point where it’s so deeply ingrained that it feels the same as if I’m just completely spontaneously making stuff up.

This brings to mind Mike Stern. I played “Giant Steps” thousands and thousands and thousands of times, over and over again with him—just the two of us. We would practice that tune or “Moment’s Notice.” He definitely took it to an incredibly deep level of understanding. I did a lot of that stuff with him and it was an amazing time.

The multiple layers on the tracks are like a jigsaw puzzle and it’s fun trying to figure out which part came first. For example, in “Parade,” there’s a short guitar solo. It starts off with the same two notes the ensemble plays earlier in a repeating two-note descending minor-third figure, just in a slower rhythm.
I’m not positive. I’m trying to remember. I played some guitar when we recorded the horns. But it also could have easily been something that was there in the track that I was reacting to when I wrote the horn part.

A Frisell fan might hear a track like “Do You Have It?,” which on the surface just sounds like a layered groove, and not “get it” until he understands the compositional process behind it. I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way, but is an awareness of the compositional process integral to having an appreciation of some of the tracks on Floratone II? How would “Do You Have It?” hold up as a piece on its own compared to your other works, if you removed the compositional process from the equation?
Wow … only time will tell. I have no idea. I guess the hope is that in the end, it’s just going to be music. It’s more about the whole overall sound of the thing than solos. Hopefully you don’t have to understand where it comes from. Hopefully it’s going to be good to listen to.

You typically juggle a mind-boggling number of high-intensity projects simultaneously. How do you keep it all straight in your head?
The music itself is never a problem. It’s all kind of swimming around in my head all the time almost simultaneously. So when I’m right there with the people I’m with, it’s never a problem. If I’m really playing it’s all coming from the same place. As soon as I’m in the music, the music takes over and everything is cool. Where I really get stressed out is just preparing for when I go out on these trips and I’m gonna have five different things that I know I have to deal with when I get to wherever I’m going. It’s more about just remembering all I have to bring with me.

Jazz musicians tend to be pretty conservative and true innovation is often met with resistance. How did you find the courage to pursue your own voice in what could sometimes be a hostile climate?
I’ve been real stubborn about trying to do my own thing, but at the same time I realize it’s kind of a fragile thing. We’re all trying to find our own way. Every once in a while I guess I’d come up against some resistance or something, but I think I’ve been super lucky. Right at a crucial moment there’s always someone there who encourages me rather than discourages me. I’ve been discouraged a few times, but more often somebody will say, “Yeah man, you sound great.” Playing with somebody like Paul Motian was a huge thing for me as far as the confidence in doing my own thing. Really, it started with my parents, who were cool about me wanting to play music, or thinking back to when I was playing with Mike Stern all the time. If these people hadn’t come along right at a particular moment, the story could be completely different.

Stern, Pat Metheny, and John Scofield also attended Berklee College of Music, and all four of you later became instrumental in moving jazz guitar forward. Were you all there at the same time?
Mike Stern wasn’t even really in school anymore, but he was around town when he wasn’t out with Blood, Sweat and Tears. Pat was no longer teaching at Berklee when I got there in the spring of ’75, but he was still living in Cambridge and playing with Gary Burton along with Mick Goodrick. He did gigs at little places like Zircon and Poo’s Pub with Bob Moses and Jaco Pastorius. Scofield had already left town just before I got there. I actually didn’t meet him until I moved to New York in ’79 or ’80 but everybody was talking about him. There’s a quartet record with him and Terumasa Hino, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter that’s just incredible.

Another way that you’ve carved your own path is with your equipment. While the hollowbody is still the de facto jazz guitar, you’ve used an SG and even headless guitars at one point. Speaking of which, are you still using the Klein guitar?
No, I haven’t used that for a long time. I sent it back to get repaired years ago and it went away from me for quite a long time, so during that time I started getting back to mostly Fender stuff. I’ve been playing Telecasters a lot—different versions of it—and most recently I’ve also been playing Stratocasters.

Mexican- or American-made Fenders?
A bunch of them. I had a Mexican-made Thinline Tele. I changed all the parts on it and everything.

What swaps did you make?
Oh man, I’ve definitely gone off the deep end. Getting into Telecasters you start thinking, “What does this pickup sound like and what does that pickup sound like?” I have Lollar, Don Mare, Lindy Fralin, and Seymour Duncan pickups—the Antiquity model. I also use a Tom [TV] Jones Filter’Tron pickup in the neck position of a Nash Tele-style guitar. What’s kind of seductive is that it’s all still this basic Telecaster and I can get comfortable with the scale, size, and shape of the guitar to where it feels at home, but from one to another—putting certain pickups in certain guitars—there are amazing differences.

Any other guitars?
I also have a few Tele-style guitars that are put together or modified by J.W. Black. He also recently made me a Strat-style guitar that is very similar to my original ’63 Strat, which I played a lot, along with a Yanuziello guitar, on All We Are Saying. I also have a Rick Kelly Tele-style made out of pine from a piece of wood taken from Jim Jarmusch’s old loft on the Bowery. It’s got Lollar Charlie Christian pickups, and I used that one on a lot of things—Sign of Life, The Windmills of Your Mind. I Just got a Collings I35-LC, which is an incredible guitar.

Your use of effects also opened the floodgates for many jazz-based guitarists. First off, let’s talk dirt pedals. Are you still using the Pro Co Rat?
Sometimes I’ll use the Rat. Mostly though, it’s an Ibanez Tube Screamer, and I also use a Fuzz-Stang pedal, which is made in Portland.

Bill Frisell's Gear

Fender Telecasters, Fender Stratocasters, Fender Jaguar, Fender Jazzmaster, J.W. Black T-style and S-style guitars, Yanuziello, Rick Kelly T-style guitar, Collings I35-LC, Nash Tstyle, Gibson ES-125, Collings D1, Gibson LG-2, Andersen Concert Model flattop, Andersen Custom 17 archtop, Andersen Little Archie

Fender blackface Princeton, Gibson Explorer 1x10, Carr Sportsman, Jack Anderson

Line 6 DL4, TC Electronic Hall of Fame, Ibanez Tube Screamer, Pro Co Rat, Electro- Harmonix Freeze, WrightSounds Fuzz-Stang, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario .011s (sometimes .010s), Dunlop medium (green), George L’s cables

What are you using now for that characteristic shimmery sound?
I use the Line 6 DL4 a lot. I also have a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb.

Does the Hall of Fame replace your Lexicon MPX 100 rackmount?
Yeah, it started making noise and stuff. This little thing is kind of amazing. I’m just carrying all my stuff around—I don’t have roadies—so it’s good if it’s small.

Do you still have that Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay?
I wish. That’s one of the most amazing pedals. I actually have two of them, but they don’t work.

Have you tried the reissue that came out a few years ago?
It’s totally not the same thing. A couple of months ago I was in a store in New York City and they had an original one in perfect condition. I started messing with it again— I hadn’t used one for a long time—and it brought back memories like, “Oh man.”

Did you buy it?
No, I just got scared. It was $1,300. So, I actually have to board the plane now.

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