Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Frisell, Bill

Guitarist Bill Frisell has a borderless musical personality which sounds at home in virtually any context. His ability to combine minimalist, harmonious textures with an angular, post-bop sensibility has made him one of his instrument’s most influential players.

Frisell was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 18, 1951. Despite these East Coast roots, he grew up in Denver, Colorado, where his parents moved before his first birthday. Frisell’s interest in music and the guitar can be traced back as early as 1955, when he built a guitar out of cardboard and rubber bands, inspired by the caracter Jimmy on the Mickey Mouse Club television show.

Frisell’s earliest musical training was on clarinet, on which he performed with his school’s marching and concert bands. Initially interested in rock and and folk music, he took his first guitar lessons from Dale Bruning in 1969. These studies introduced him to jazz performance and theory.

Frisell studied briefly at the University of Northern Colorado after high school, then enrolled the Berklee School of Music for one semester. After Berklee, he moved to New York to study with jazz guitarist Jim Hall, then returned to Colorado to continue his studies with Dale Bruning. Frisell then returned to Berklee for a second time where he met many musicians he would collaborate with throughout his career. During this second stint at Berklee, Frisell was awarded the Harris Stanton Award for outstanding guitarists.

He moved to Belgium in 1976 so he could play regular gigs there, and was soon recommended by guitarist Pat Metheny to record as a session guitarist for the ECM label in 1978. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Frisell recorded with ECM artists including Jan Garbarek and Paul Motian, the latter of whom would become a career-long musical collaborator.

In 1982, Frisell moved to New York, and recorded his debut album as a leader for ECM, In Line. In 1984, Frisell first played with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer/bandleader Paul Motian. They soon formed a bassless, interactive jazz trio that released its first record It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, under Motian’s name in 1984. The trio has since released many albums and continues to perform regularly at the Village Vanguard in New York City. ”’Yallah”is a track from their 1995 release, At the Village Vanguard.

Frisell released two more records on ECM: Rambler in 1984, featuring Kenny Wheeler and Paul Motian, and Lookout for Hope in 1987. Hope marked the debut of the long-standing “Bill Frisell Quartet,” consisting of Frisell, cellist Hank Roberts, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron.

When Frisell left ECM and signed with Elektra records after the Lookout for Hope sessions, his quartet remained intact for his next three albums: Before We Were Born, Is That You? with Wayne Horwitz added on keyboards, and Where in the World , which marked the last studio record with the Roberts/Driscoll/Baron quartet. Each quartet member would continue performing with Frisell on various future projects.

After nearly five years with a steady band, Frisell began assembling new players to collaborate with while often retaining the rhythm section of Driscoll and Baron. In 1992, a septet was assembled to record two records: an album of wide-ranging cover material entitled Have a Little Faith, and a record of all-original material, This Land. ”’Monica Jane” is a harmonically intricate 12-bar blues from this album.

The final collaboration between Frisell, Driscoll and Baron, performed as a trio, was a unique set of music set to the films of Buster Keaton, released in 1995 under the titles Go West: Music for the Films of Buster Keaton, and High Sign/One Week.

From the late 1990s to the present, Frisell’s original lineups have become even more distinctive and wide-ranging. He formed a guitar/trumpet/trombone/violin lineup for 1996’s Quartet and a traditional country lineup of acoustic guitar, dobro, banjo, mandolin and violin for 1997’s Nashville. The album, which teams bluegrass greats with jazz improvisers is a classic conception of the multifaceted Frisell. “We’re Not From Around Here” displays the collectively improvised country-jazz heard throughout the record.

Classic rock drummer Jim Keltner and longtime Lyle Lovett bassist Viktor Krauss formed Frisell’s trio for Gone, Just Like a Train and Good Dog, Happy Man. A trumpet/trombone/alto sax frontline was augmented with pedal-steel guitar and dobro for 2001’s Blues Dream, and an all-star collaboration with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones was also released in 2001. A world music release, The Intercontinentals, was released in 2003, followed by a turntable and sample-dominated electric release entitled Unspeakable, which was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2004.

In 2005, Frisell released the double live album titled East/West with Kenny Wollesen on drums and both Viktor Krauss (West) or Tony Scherr (East) on bass. In 2006, Frisell led a trio with the masterful rhythm section of Paul Motian and Ron Carter, entitled Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian.

“I don’t like the way things are categorized: country is that, blues is this, rock and jazz is that,” Frisell told Acoustic Guitar Magazine in May of 2002, “ If you look at any kind of music and go back far enough, there’s usually some point where it’s the same as the thing it’s supposed to be the opposite of.”

Bill Frisell has spent much of his thirty-year career breaking down musical categories. He has achieved this by shifting personnel and instrumentation, balancing electric and acoustic textures, combining dense arrangement and loose collective improvisation, and carefully alternating original compositions with jazz standards. Despite the range of styles of which he is capable Frisell’s playing is always jazz, and remains rooted in the fundamentals of harmony and improvisation.

Since 1989, Frisell and his wife Carole have lived in Seattle, Washington. Their daughter, Monica Jane, is a photographer based in New York City.


As a leader:

In Line (1982), Rambler (1984), Smash and Scatteration (1984), Lookout for Hope (1987), Before We Were Born (1988), Is That You? (1989), Where in the World? (1990), Live (1991), Have a Little Faith (1992), This Land (1992), American Blood/Safety in Numbers (1995), Go West: Music for the Films of Buster Keaton (1995), High Sign/One Week (1995), Quartet (1996), Nashville (1997), Gone, Just Like a Train (1997), Good Dog, Happy Man (1999), Ghost Town (2000), Blues Dream (2001), With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (2001), The Willies (2002), The Intercontinentals (2003), Unspeakable (2004), Richter 858 (2005), East/West (2005), Further East/Further West (2005), Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (2007)

As a sideman (selected):

Paths, Prints (Jan Garbarek, 1981), Psalm (Paul Motian, 1981), Later That Evening (Eberhard Weber, 1982), Story of Maryam (Paul Motian, 1983), Wayfarer (Jan Garbarek Group, 1983), It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (Paul Motian, 1984), Bass Desires (Marc Johnson, 1985), Cobra (John Zorn, 1985), Fragments (Paul Bley, 1986), Spillane (John Zorn, 1986), Rah (Billy Hart, 1987), Big Band (Julius Hemphill, 1988), Monk in Motian (Paul Motian, 1988), On Broadway, Volume One (Paul Motian, 1988), Naked City (John Zorn (1989), Lion for Real (Allen Ginsburg, 1990), Tuskegee Experiments (Don Byron, 1990), Grace Under Pressure (John Scofield, 1991), Film Works, 1986-1990 (John Zorn, 1992), Rhapsody (Lee Konitz, 1993), Going Back Home (Ginger Baker, 1994), Broken English/Strange Weather (Marianne Faithful, 1995), Deep Dead Blue (Elvis Costello/Bill Frisell, 1995), Dialogues (Jim Hall, 1995), New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands (John Zorn, 1995), Angel Song (Kenny Wheeler, 1996), At the Village Vanguard (Paul Motian, 1996), Blues Connotation (Robben Ford/Kenny Garrett, 1996), Down Home (Joey Baron, 1997), Sound of Summer Running (Marc Johnson, 1997), Songs We Know (Fred Hersch/Bill Frisell, 1998), Orfeu (Ron Carter, 1999), Play (Mike Stern, 1999), The Sweetest Punch: The Songs of Costello and Bacharach (Elvis Costello/Bill Frisell, 1999), We’ll Soon Find Out (Joey Baron, 2000), Old Folks (Kenny Garrett, 2001), Come Away With Me (Norah Jones, 2002), Masada Guitars (John Zorn, 2003), Far From Enough (Viktor Krauss, 2004), In Tokyo (Paul Motian, 2004), Strange Liberation (Dave Douglas, 2004), 12 Songs (Jenny Scheinman, 2005), Ghetto Bells (Vic Chesnutt, 2005), Haunted Heart (Renee Fleming, 2005), I Have the Room Above Her (Paul Motian, 2005), The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers (Jack DeJohnette, 2006), Out of Airplanes (Dave Binney, 2006), Civilians (Joe Henry, 2007), Floratone (Bill Frisell, Matt Chamberlain, Lee Townsend, Tucker Martine, 2007), Twist in the Wind (Tony Scherr, 2007), West (Lucinda Williams, 2007)

Contributor: Eric Novod