Bill Frisell truly needs no introduction. He is a highly-praised guitarist whose sound is instantly recognizable, and who has changed the landscape of music for all time. It helps that he is also one of the most kind-hearted souls on the planet, who is generous with his time and attention.
For those who may be new to Bill's work, a few favorites around the Audeze headquarters are: Music IS, The Gnostic Preludes, Richter 858, The Intercontinentals and Small Town. He's recently released a brand new album called Valentine, which is a truly wonderful trio record with bass and drums, and possibly distills everything that's so great about Bill into one album's worth of material.
Photos by Monica Jane Frisell
Here is Bill Frisell in his own words:
My whole life, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been madly in love with music. Music always saves me. Never lets me down. These past few months have been an extraordinary reminder. On the first day of “lockdown” I reached for my guitar and haven’t put it down since.
I’m so thankful. Music is good.
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of? You've had quite a career, so feel free to reach for a variety of releases, or whatever pops into your mind.
It’s always a difficult question for me to answer. Every musical endeavor, whether it be a recording, concert, rehearsal, practicing alone at home, or whatever ....nothing is ever finished. Every day I wake up and it feels like I’m at the beginning. I am. What’s out front of us is infinite. We can never finish. The music I’m hearing in my head is always something I'm reaching for ...just a little beyond my grasp. It took me a while to be comfortable with this. If I make an album ...it never feels finished.
Recording is like taking a snapshot of whatever is happening in that one particular moment. The music keeps going. I’ve been so lucky having the opportunity to do as many things as I do. I have the luxury to look ahead to what comes next. So....it all feels like one gigantic piece of music. So ...
It’s really impossible to pick out just one particular moment.
Along the way I’ve met so many mind blowing wonderful people. Too many to mention.
With all the mind blowing opportunities I’ve had it’s so hard to name just a few.
But .... Right off the top of my head.
-Hal Willner’s tribute album to Nino Rota. This was the first recording I made under my own name. My friend D. Sharpe recommended me to Hal.
No one knew who I was at that point.
On the strength of D. Sharpe’s word Hal put his trust in me and that was the beginning of 40 years of the most extraordinary experiences. Marianne Faithfull, Van Dyke Parks, Allen Ginsberg, Elvis Costello, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Bono, Henry Threadgill, Percy Heath, Steve Earle, Garth Hudson, Dr. John, Gavin Friday, Sting, Lou Reed, Gus Van Sant, Loudon Wainwright, etc etc etc.
Hal also produced one of my own albums called “Unspeakable” which won a Grammy.
Hal passed away in early April due to COVID-19.
Anyone familiar with my music probably also knows of my work with Paul Motian.
He was another one who recognized something in me early on and gave me a chance. We played together for 30 years until he passed away in 2011. I treasure every moment.
David Breskin is another friend who opened doors for me very early on, had faith in me, and set up amazing situations for music to happen.
-Smash and Scatteration with Vernon Reid.
-Power Tools with Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson
-858 Gerhard Richter
I’ve made countless albums with my friend Lee Townsend.
He produced my first “band” album for ECM in the mid 80s my latest album Valentine and so much of what has happened in between. We’ve been together through thick and thin.
My friend Wayne Horvitz produced some very important albums for me.
-Is That You? I traveled to Seattle and recorded this with him in the summer of 1989 and had such a good time that I decided to move there.
-Have a Little Faith This was my 3rd recording for Nonesuch and the first album where I played all “cover” songs. None of my own material. It was an attempt to show a little bit where I was coming from ...
-Nashville That was an amazing experience. Meeting for the first time and making friends with extraordinary musicians. I’d never played with a banjo player or a mandolin player before that. I learned so much.
A few questions about your new album Valentine:
Does the album have much in the way of overdubs? It sounds primarily like it was live in the studio, with loops created by you in the moment.
95%-99%... of it is just us playing live in the studio. I didn’t want to use the studio to “construct” something. I mean ..that’s great ...but I wanted this album to represent what we do on a gig.
-On Baba Drame and Electricity there is a little percussion stuff added by Rudy.
-On Hour Glass there’s an extra arco bass playing the melody in unison with a distorted guitar.
-Aunt Mary is the one with the most obvious overdub trickery. I added a second electric guitar.
Most everything else is just us the way we played it.
The album was recorded with Rudy Royston (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass), just after a long series of live dates at the famed Village Vanguard jazz club. It brings to mind a certain other jazz trio that was recorded there almost 60 years ago: Bill Evans (piano) with Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motian (drums, who you've worked with extensively). On both recordings, there is a sense of rapture and a very strong feeling of musical empathy and interplay-- one might even say telepathy.
Was there a conscious relationship for you between those historic Evans recordings and Valentine?
It wasn’t conscious. But, everything you’re mentioning there has had an ENORMOUS impact on me. As soon as I discovered “Jazz” (if we can use that word), I fell in love with Bill Evans. Listened to his records and saw him play live many many times.
I met him briefly in 1972. Gave him a ride back to his hotel after a gig he played in Denver at the Senate Lounge. I thought I was going to pass out. Meeting one of my larger than life heroes like that. He turned out to be a human being. But ..still. Wow.
I played with Paul for 30 years. I think anyone who knows my music knows how important that relationship was (is).
Much has been said about the mystique of the Vanguard. Do you feel there's something magical or mystical about the club that brings this kind of energy to performances?
There IS something about it. It’s true. No doubt in my mind. Things happen there that won’t happen anywhere else. Whenever I’m playing there, I like to sneak in early in the afternoon and just play by myself and try to soak up as much as I can.
The first Sonny Rollins album a got was “A Night at the Village Vanguard”. That’s a record I could listen to over and over for the rest of my life. I heard him play in there in 72.
Paul played and recorded in there with Keith Jarrett as well as Bill Evans.
I first went there to listen in 1969.
That place is somethin else.
I’ve heard so much music in there and played so much music in there. I‘m so lucky.
Don’t quite know what to say.
The trio had played in there shortly before making the Valentine album....but we’d also been to Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Japan, all over Europe and all over the states. So ...
All that experience is in there too.
How long have you been playing with Rudy and Thomas?
I met Thomas in early 2000s. We’ve played all kinds of different situations together.
The first time I met and played with my friend Ron Miles was in Denver. 1993. Rudy was on that gig. Ron and Rudy and I all grew up in Denver, so maybe there’s something going on with that?
Thomas and I played together on Paul Motian’s last album “Windmills of Your Mind”. (With Petra Haden).
Paul loved Thomas. I love Thomas too.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on? Do you have a favorite way to work when recording as the "leader" on a date?
I’ve been unbelievably blessed to play with so many amazing musicians.
I’ve never really felt like a “leader”.
Everyone I play with is my teacher.
You’ve probably heard it said that a band is only as good as its weakest link. That’s my secret. Whenever I put a group together I always make sure I’m the weakest link. I’m constantly being inspired and challenged by the folks I get to play with. I never have to tell anyone what to do. I choose people because I love what they do and I love them as people and I just want to see what will happen.
How did you get started in music? What was the general arc of your musical education as you got into the professional musician's life?
I grew up in Denver and started in the public school music program in 4th grade. I played clarinet in band and orchestra. Not long after that I got a guitar and started playing in bands and never stopped. I always felt welcomed by the music community ...all the way back to the beginning. The music and the people.
Music gives you a way of looking at things, organizing things, putting things together. Harmony. Rhythm.
Tension. Release. Dissonance. Consonance. Melody.
Music can give us hope and some insight into how we might all get along better as people.
The history is filled with heroes. Giants. Lots of folks to look up to.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
It’s easy to get discouraged. Especially early on.
There were plenty of moments of doubt. It’s fragile. Just when I thought I was done for, someone would show up ...
in the nick of time. I’ve been so lucky all along to have an incredible support system. Folks encouraging me every step of the way. Starting with my parents, my brother ...and so many teachers, friends, my wife, my daughter, etc. etc.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
Sometimes I think there’s to much emphasis put on the gear. I’m a guitar player ...and I definitely have fallen deep into this trap. I have a million guitars and a million pedals and amps and gadgets all that stuff. I love all of it. But, when you get down to it ...the most important thing is our imagination. We don’t need all that junk. At the beginning of this “lock down” I grabbed a guitar and a notebook and a pencil and have found that this is pretty much all I need.
I use the Line 6 Delay modeler a lot. In the 80s I discovered the Electro Harmonix 16 second delay. Later a Digitech 8 second delay. All that stuff eventually bit the dust and I found the Line 6. For many years now I’ve stuck with that one.
These days, I also love the Strymon Flint (reverb-tremolo) pedal.
If I had to give up all my pedals that would be the last to go.
There are so many great pedals out there today.
Electro Harmonix is still making far out wonderful stuff. I love their Freeze pedal.
Jam Pedals make great stuff.
It’s hard to start naming names because I’ll leave out so many good folks. There’s so much good stuff out there these days. Good people that care about what they are doing making cool things.
JW Black has much to do with any kind of Telecaster guitar you see me playing. He’s either built it or has had his hands on it in some way. I’m so lucky to have met him....back when he was working for Roger Sadowsky (who also makes great guitars). JW Black later went on to work at the Fender Custom Shop ... And eventually settled in Eugene, Oregon where he has his own shop and makes his own guitars.
Steve Andersen makes incredible guitars. I got one of his flat tops in 93. A gift from Gary Larson. That’s the guitar I find myself reaching for every day during this lockdown.
Joe Yanuziello makes amazing guitars.
I have 3 Collings guitars. They are off the scale great.
Jeff Callahan makes awesome pickups. I have those in a few of my JW Black guitars.
Lollar makes awesome pickups.
Eric Daw has done lots of great work on my guitars. I met him when he did all the repairs at Emerald City Guitars in Seattle. He now has his own shop in Idaho.
John “Woody” Woodland. Mastery Bridge. He completely re designed the bridge and tailpiece for Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars in a way that transforms these historically problematic instruments into what they were meant to be.
Rick Kelly and Cindy at Carmine Street Guitars are doing far out things with old wood salvaged from disappearing New York. I have a Telecaster type guitar Rick made for me from a 150+ year old pine beam rescued from Jim Jarmusch‘s old loft on the Bowery.
Ken Parker makes extraordinary unique guitars that defy gravity.
Ron Ellis makes amazing pickups.
It’s cool being back in New York where I can hang out at TR Crandall guitars, and Retrofret, and Southside Guitars, Carmine St Guitars, and Rudy’s and check things out.
Strings: For the past few years I’ve been using D’Addario Chromes
(11-50 Flatwounds!!) on my electric guitars.
I use D’Addario EXP (usually 12-52) on my acoustics.
Jack Anderson makes great amps.
Also I have a Carr Sportsman amp that I really like.
At home I have an old Gibson GA-18 Explorer, I think 1960, I love.
Also a (1964?) Fender Princeton that I like.
I have some guitars painted by artist friends. These guys are amazing artists living in Seattle.
Terry Turrell painted 2 of my guitars.
Claude Utley painted one.
Jim Stoccardo painted a little Papoose guitar.
There are so many others. Forgive me for leaving some folks out.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
I believe that deep down inside, we all know what is right and true, and what it is we love. I think that’s all we need to know. If we can stay in touch with that. Make sure you love what you’re doing and try not to be afraid to show it. Everyone has their own unique story.
My friend Danny Barnes (great banjo player) once said, “Music is good”.
I believe that. No doubt.
Music is good.
One of my biggest heroes is Sonny Rollins.
I read in an interview where he said he’s trying to live by the golden rule.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Imagine if we all did that?
Sonny also had some other advice for a younger musician.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow? Has this changed in recent months due to the pandemic?
Sometimes I enjoy listening to music on headphones.
Now, during the pandemic, I’ve begun learning how to record myself at home. Being alone so much these days, I’m finding myself relying on headphones more and more.
Shortly after Bill received the new LCD-Xs he ordered, he sent this email titled ".....mind blown."
The phones arrived safe and sound.
I don’t quite know what to say.
I’ve never ever really had a great listening situation at home.
This is such an extraordinary upgrade for me. To put it mildly. Dramatic.
I’ve only just now started listening.
The experience is bordering on psychedelic.
I put on a couple of Sonny Rollins things ...and then Messiaen Chronochromie Deutsche Grammophon Cleveland Orchestra ....
I don’t want to stop.
This is kind of a big deal for me.
Seems like over the past 20-30 years I’ve been listening to music less and less. I miss the old days when I would sit around with my friends and check out a record from beginning to end and have our minds blown and then do it again. Listening to an album was an EVENT.
This is getting me super fired up to get back to that again. Maybe it’s still possible.
I needed this right now. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Can not thank you enough.