Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell
Published at August 15, 2014

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, March 18 1951 as William Richard Frisell.
Moved with his parents to Denver, Colorado.

Born in Baltimore, Bill Frisell played clarinet throughout his childhood in Denver, Colorado. His interest in guitar began with his exposure to pop music on the radio. Soon, the Chicago Blues became a passion through the work of Otis Rush, B.B. King, Paul Butterfield and Buddy Guy. In high school, he played in bands covering pop and soul classics, James Brown and other dance material. Later, Bill studied music at the University of Northern Colorado before attending Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied with John Damian, Herb Pomeroy and Michael Gibbs. In 1978, Frisell moved for a year to Belgium where he concentrated on writing music. In this period, he toured with Michael Gibbs and first recorded with German bassist Eberhard Weber. Bill moved to the New York City area in 1979 and stayed until 1989. He now lives in Seattle.

“When I was 16, I was listening to a lot of surfing music, a lot of English rock. Then I saw Wes Montgomery and somehow that kind of turned me around. Later, Jim Hall made a big impression on me and I took some lessons with him. I suppose I play the kind of harmonic things Jim would play but with a sound that comes from Jimi Hendrix”, Frisell told Wire. Bill also lists Paul Motian, Thelonious Monk, Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and his teacher, Dale Bruning, as musical influences.
Bill recorded his first two albums as a leader on ECM, both produced by Manfred Eicher. Subdued and lyrical in nature, In Line, the first of the ECM recordings, employed both electric and acoustic guitars in a series of solos (including some overdubbing) and duets with bassist Arild Andersen. Second was Rambler, featuring Kenny Wheeler, Bob Stewart, Jerome Harris and Paul Motian. About Rambler, Fanfare said: “Bill Frisell has built a little masterpiece here – not just a showcase for his own instrumental creativity (of which there is much in evidence), but a clever and poetic whole.”

Frisell’s third album and last for ECM, Lookout For Hope, marked the recording debut of The Bill Frisell Band featuring Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. Produced by Lee Townsend, the album’s diverse material – ranging from country swing to reggae, quasi-heavy metal and backbeat rock with a twist to Monk’s “Hackensack” – nevertheless possessed the cohesive and unmistakable personality of a working band on to a sound of its own. High Fidelity called it “the fullest showing of Frisell’s ability to date, especially his compositional range.” The Chicago Tribune said: “Lookout For Hope offers one of the most hopeful signs that contemporary jazz can evolve with dignity, wit and charm.”

Before We Were Born, Frisell’s debut recording for Nonesuch, featured three musical settings: Peter Scherer and Arto Lindsay produced, co-arranged and performed on three Frisell compositions. “Some Song and Dance”, produced by Lee Townsend, is a suite of four pieces performed by Frisell’s Band with a saxophone section featuring Julius Hemphill, Billy Drewes and Doug Wieselman. Frisell’s “Hard Plains Drifter” is an extended work shaped, produced and arranged by John Zorn and played by the Frisell Band. The New York Times observed: “By following through on the implications of his unfettered sounds, Mr. Frisell has made his best album.”

Frisell’s second Nonesuch album, Is That You?, features nine original Frisell compositions, one by producer Wayne Horvitz and two cover tunes – “Chain of Fools” and “Days of Wine and Roses”. With Frisell playing guitars, bass, banjo, ukulele and even clarinet, Is That You? demonstrated with great clarity his pan-stylistic, yet strangely unified musical world. Musician called the album “a very personal vision, tearing down stylistic barriers with delicacy and sudden bursts of emotion.”

Frisell’s third album for Nonesuch, Where in the World?, also produced by Wayne Horvitz, was the band’s final recording with cellist Hank Roberts. The Philadelphia Inquirer said: “There is nothing standard about Where in the World?…Frisell is not only a master of an unusual guitar-based sonic tapestry, he’s one of the few composers capable of writing for an interactive ensemble.”

Have a Little Faith, Frisell’s 1992 Nonesuch recording, was something of a tribute album. Here, he interpreted the music of a number of American composers whose music had inspired him – Aaron Copland, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Sonny Rollins, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Victor Young, Madonna and John Philip Sousa. The extent to which Bill has made this music his own demonstrates the completeness of its link to his own compositional approach. For this recording Frisell’s Band was augmented by Don Byron (clarinet, bass clarinet) and Guy Klusevsek (accordion) and produced by Wayne Horvitz. The San Francisco Bay Guardian said, “Frisell treats each piece with typical earnestness and lyricism, breaking into wrenching distortion and stormy group improv only after breathing the original full of a softly glowing life.”

This Land, Frisell’s fifth Nonesuch recording, consists of all original material with the band and a horn section of Don Byron (clarinets), Billy Drewes (alto saxophone) and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone). Produced by Lee Townsend, the album readily displays the connection between Frisell’s own writing and the composers’ work to whom he pays tribute on his previous Have a Little Faith. From the standpoint of synthesizing his celebrated composing and arranging talents with exuberant improvising and spirited band interaction, it is a landmark recording, described by Rolling Stone as: “Strange meetings of the mysterious and the earthy, the melancholy and the giddy, make perfect sense by Frisell’s deliciously warped way of thinking. The warpage is catching on and not a moment too soon.”

In 1994, Frisell recorded a pair of recordings of music that he composed for three silent Buster Keaton films – The High Sign, One Week and Go West The band premiered this music along with the films to a spirited and sold-out audience at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn in May ’93. The pairing displayed a natural affinity between the work of both artists. Their works together possess an undeniable sense of adventure and penchant for the unexpected that only enhances the warmth and humanity of both the musical elements and the films themselves. It has proven to be the rare case where the whole truly transcends the sum of its parts. Of the “Go West” recording , Billboard noted: “With this set of music for the classic Buster Keaton film, “Go West,” Bill Frisell has crafted one of his finest, most evocative albums. Evincing his best qualities as both guitarist and composer, he harvests melancholy Americana from deceptively modest, episodic themes. Coloring the scenes with acoustic as well as his trademark electric, Frisell produces strangely cinematic motifs on guitar, and his rhythm cohorts – longtime bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron – provide abundant narrative drive.”

Frisell’s success with the Keaton films has led him to other film-related projects. He scored the music for Gary Larson’s “Tales From the Far Side” animated television special and Daniele Luchetti’s Italian feature film, “La Scuola.” Some of the music from these projects has been adapted and recorded by Frisell on Quartet, Frisell’s Nonesuch recording released in April ’96.

The formation of the Quartet, with Ron Miles (trumpet), Eyvind Kang (violin) and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), was a new working band for Frisell, who had worked with the telepathic rhythm combination of Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron for nearly ten years. Frisell told Down Beat: “It’s so different from the traditional guitar-bass-drum thing, even though Joey Baron, Kermit Driscoll and I never played like a typical jazz trio. This group, with violin and brass, can play an orchestral range of sounds. It’s gigantic. It’s given me a chance to write and arrange in an even bigger way.” Quartet, was quickly hailed by critics. The New York Times declared: “Quartet may be his masterpiece.”

Nonesuch released Nashville in April of 1997. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Wayne Horvitz with members of Allison Krauss’ Union Station band – mandolin player Adam Steffey and banjo player Ron Block – the project also features her brother and Lyle Lovett’s bass player Viktor Krauss, dobro great Jerry Douglas, vocalist Robin Holcomb and Pat Bergeson on harmonica. “Comprising acoustic instrumental folk tunes with unpredictable stylistic accents, Nashville boasts a dreamy, seductive grandeur. The backing mandolin/dobro/bass interplay simmersFrisell himself picks and strings and most of all floats, laying out liquid tones that settle over the melodies like heat haze on a swampy, swimmerless lake.” wrote the LA Weekly. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summed it up simply with: “Frisell’s nod to Nashville is Americana at its best.”

In January of 1998 Frisell’s next project Gone, Just Like A Train came out. On this exceptionally melodic and rhythmically vital instrumental collection of original compositions, Frisell is joined by Viktor Krauss and by Jim Keltner, all star drummer of choice for Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, T-Bone Burnett, George Harrison, John Lennon and The Traveling Wilburys. The Rocket in Seattle wrote that “Frisell has managed to pull together an ad hoc super trio of musicians from drastically different pasts, and they manage to assemble a machine of colossal proportions: part skewered jazz, part roadside folk blues, part gritty rock.Gone presents Frisell at a creative apex. He’s integrated a thoroughly unique understanding of so much American Music And it’s all gift-wrapped in a lean, unimposing trio framework that conveys sheer genius in a million directions It flies with shining power.” Produced by Lee Townsend, the album proved to be one of Frisell’s most celebrated and popular to date.

Good Dog, Happy Man, brims full of Frisell’s shimmering original compositions. Here he is reunited with the Gone Just Like a Train rhythm section of Viktor Krauss on bass and Jim Keltner on drums and joined by Wayne Horvitz on Hammond B3 organ, multi-instrumentalist/slide guitarist Greg Leisz (known for his work with Joni Mitchell, K.D. Lang, Emmy Lou Harris, Beck and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others) plus special guest Ry Cooder on the traditional folk song “Shenendoah”. Produced by Lee Townsend, Good Dog, Happy Man celebrates Frisell’s emergence as a composer who has created a genre unto himself. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “The 12 breathtakingly beautiful originals on Good Dog, Happy Man resist every obvious classification Frisell’s been doing the undefinable for years – creating revelatory music from threadbare accompaniment; finding vital contexts for jazz improvisation that are worlds away from bebop; burying shiny nuggets of melody beneath a gauzy lace-like surface Frisell manages to evoke big worlds with stark single notes and foreboding sustained tones, conjuring a richly textured atmosphere that is both understated and undeniable. No matter what you call it.”

“Bill Frisell makes such consistently great records that it would be easy to take the guitarist for granted. That would be sad, since no one refracts age-old Americana through a cutting-edge prism with the warm-hearted, fleet-minded individuality of Frisell. With Good Dog, Happy Man he has crafted one of his earthiest essays yet. Backed by an ultra-hip band, Frisell has forged originals whose folky melodies and big-sky grooves make them seem like old friends in snazzy new clothes.” – Billboard.

Bill’s solo album, Ghost Town was described as “moody, articulate music is a milestone in the career of a true innovator – enchanting as anything he has done and a clear window into his muse” (CMJ). With producer Lee Townsend, Frisell has created a sonic tapestry that weaves in and out of original material and cover songs, some recorded in multiple layers, others recorded nakedly solo. According to Billboard, “Ghost Town sounds like a classic already”.
For Frisell’s acclaimed CD Blues Dream, released on Nonesuch in early 2001, the New Quartet of Greg Leisz, David Piltch and Kenny Wollesen is joined by a horn section of Ron Miles (trumpet), Billy Drewes (alto saxophone) and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone). In many ways it represented a culmination of the strands running through many of the recordings in Frisell’s catalogue, combining the homespun lyricism of Good Dog, Happy Man, Gone Just Like a Train and Nashville with the orchestral timbres of Quartet and the expanded tonal palette and harmonic sophistication afforded by a larger group (i.e. The Sweetest Punch, This Land and Before We Were Born.) Produced by Lee Townsend, it has been described as “A rich, eclectic masterpiece.” (Blair Jackson, Mix Magazine).

The Autumn of 2001 saw the Nonesuch release of Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, on which Bill was joined by two jazz legends to interpret a number of the most enduring compositions from his songbook as well as Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”. “Holland and Jones warm well to the folk-inflected material, complimenting the guitarist’s offbeat charm and unerring taste with their muscular authority.” ­ Billboard.

The Willies is Frisells characteristically inimitable and modern take on bluegrass and country blues with Danny Barnes (from The Bad Livers) on banjo and guitar and Keith Lowe, (known for his work with Fiona Apple, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps and Wayne Horvitz) on bass. Produced by Lee Townsend and released in June 2002 on Nonesuch, the material consists of such traditional songs as Cluck Old Hen, John Hardy, Single Girl, Sugar Baby, Blackberry Blossom, Sitting on Top of the World, Good Night Irene, Cold, Cold Heart and a number of Frisells original compositions. John Cratchley of The Wire described it as follows: This is music that you feel you have known yet you have never heard before, like some treasured memory of an event that hasnt happened yet . It is firmly rooted in the simplest of musical gestures yet manages to build, intricate layer by intricate layer into a manifestation of cultural timelessness . This is composition of the highest order masquerading as back-porch rambling.

Frisells encounters with such Malian musicians as singer and guitarist Boubacar Traore and percussionist Sidiki Camara, who has played with many of Malis most renowned performers, left him eager to further explore the commonalities of African and American roots musics. His Nonesuch recording, The Intercontinentals, is fresh evidence of those impulses. In late 2001, Frisell assembled an intriguing quartet consisting of Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist and percussionist Vinicius Cantuária, Greek-Macedonian musician Christos Govetas on oud, bouzouki and vocals and Malis Camara on percussion and vocals. The debut concerts at Seattle’s Earshot Festival created quite a stir. Downbeat described the group’s music as possessing “fine webs of guitar interlacings, swaying momentum, dense textures and rhythmic urgency.” The group was soon expanded to include Greg Leisz (on pedal steel and various slide guitars) and Scheinman (violin). In May and September 2002, the album was recorded in Seattle and San Francisco with producer Lee Townsend and engineer Tucker Martine for release in April, 2003. The material consists of all-new Frisell compositions plus songs by Boubacar Traore, Cantuaria, Gilberto Gil and Govetas. It is an album that combines Frisells own brand of American roots music and his unmistakable improvisational style with the influences of Brazilian, Greek and Malian sounds.

Other recent projects include a Burt Bacharach – Elvis Costello CD, The Sweetest Punch, on Decca which features Frisell’s arrangements of the same 12 tunes Elvis and Burt recorded together on their pop record for Mercury, Painted From Memory. The record was produced by Lee Townsend and features Bill on guitar, Viktor Krauss on bass, Brian Blade on drums and a horn section comprised of Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ron Miles on trumpet, Don Byron on clarinet and Billy Drewes on saxophone. Cassandra Wilson and Elvis Costello lend vocals to a couple of tracks.

In September 1998 Nonesuch released a duo recording of jazz standards by Frisell and labelmate pianist Fred Hersch entitled Songs We Know.

Downbeat’s 1998 Critic’s poll awarded Bill’s Nashville “Album Of The Year,” and Bill himself, “Guitarist Of The Year” in both 1998 and 1999. His Quartet won the German equivalent of a Grammy, the prestigious Deutsche Schallplatten Preis. Meanwhile at the Annual Jazz Awards in New York City, the Jazz Journalists Association and the Knitting Factory honored him with the Award for “Guitarist of the Year” in both 1998 and 1999.
Moviegoers will hear Frisell playing alongside Bono, Brian Eno, John Hassell and Daniel Lanois on the soundtrack of Wim Wenders’ film, Million Dollar Hotel, starring Mel Gibson with a screenplay by Bono. He also composed and recorded original soundtrack music for four recent productions, including American Hollow, an HBO documentary special by Rory Kennedy about an Appalachian family, a public radio program about the human genome called The DNA Files, the music for two Gus Van Zant films – Finding Forrester and the remake of Psycho – and the music for Gary Larson’s second animated television project “Tales From The Far Side II.”

Here is a timeline of lesser known important musical events leading up to the time when Bill Frisell began to record more extensively in the 80’s. This is not meant to be a complete biography – Bill used his not so good memory for most of this. It may not be completely accurate but should give a pretty good approximation.

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