For the latest installment of Artist Talks, our Associate Editor, Jordan Schulman had the unique honor of speaking with musician and guitarist, Bill Frisell, from his home studio in Brooklyn, NY.
Frisell is an award-winning guitarist, composer, and sonic innovator with a prolific creative output; he is a highly sought-after collaborator who plays with a stunning roster of artists and musicians.
Bill Frisell’s demeanor is very gentle and introspective, he’s generous with his time and very gracious about digging deep into his past projects. In the last 25 years, he has made music involving the photographic work of Mike Disfarmer, the paintings of Gerhard Richter, and the films of Buster Keaton. He was part of Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings project, and more recently collaborated with artist/photographer Ann Hamilton.
It was a real gift to hear him speak candidly about the development of these numerous projects and to what has been a constant central theme in his professional and artistic life; saying yes when a creative opportunity arises, leaning into the unknown, and learning a lot from it.
Bill Frisell is featured on John Zorn‘s latest release, Gnosis: The Inner Light, a memorial to one of Zorn’s early mentors, Ennio Morricone. He is also part of the new Charles Lloyd and The Marvels album, Tone Poem that is being released next month.
The following text is excerpts from an interview that has been edited for length.
Jordan Schulman: I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen you perform two times here in Chicago at the Art Institute. First was in 2018 with the Gnostic Trio as part of John Zorn’s Twelve Performance Showcase that happened throughout the galleries of the museum. Most recently, I saw your solo performance in the fall of 2019 at the Fullerton Auditorium where you did an electric set and an acoustic set.
Bill Frisell: Yes, the last time, in 2019 was amazing because I actually got to spend time by myself in the museum, it was quite an experience. I’ve been to Chicago maybe twenty or thirty times, and it is always bam, bam, bam, you’re in and you’re out, the usual…well, not usual right now.
JS: I’ve watched a few different things that you’ve done from your home studio as part of the Shelter In Place Sessions on the Southwest Roots Music channel, the extensive video interview you did in April 2020 with Pablo Held that was done right at the time we were all still adjusting to the shock of everything that was happening. Most recently, I saw the New York Guitar Festival – Red Sofa Concert video.
What I’d like us to use as a stepping off point are the front yard performances you’ve been doing around Brooklyn. I’m not sure if you’ve seen them, but, a gentleman with the YouTube handle PeteLikesMusic has posted some great videos of all of you playing. I’m curious, how did those socially distanced public performances come about after so many months of having to be stuck at home?
BF: Well, I guess the first time I played out recently was, a friend of mine, Derek Nievergelt, he’s a bass player, and he had been doing these yard performances with his own group not far from where I live in Brooklyn. He started doing these impromptu sets out in front of his house. I asked him if I can come by with Rudy Royston and Thomas Morgan so the three of us could play a set as well, so we managed to play in Derek’s front yard. I remember that, because before then it had been…oh, boy…see, I’ve completely lost the months and days.
JS: It’s all good, I’m right there with you… The only reason I have any semblance of a chronology is that I’ve spent the last day and a half researching and putting together a bit of a timeline for this interview.
An understanding grin comes across Frisell’s face in response to my comment, his eyes then light up, excitement rises in his voice, and I can see his memories rush in…
BF: It was somewhere in the early part of this summer, the weather was nice…and finally, I’m with my friends, and we get to play together! It was just incredible…the feeling of playing with people again, after it had been so many months playing alone by that point.
I was in fourth grade when I started playing in the school band, and before that, I had music classes…I’m thinking, there hasn’t been more than a few days in a row that have gone by when I haven’t interacted with another person usually while playing music. Even if it was me, at eight years old playing the tambourine, there was something…something musical happening in my life that involved other people and then, all of a sudden…you can’t do that, it was really shocking.
There are all kinds of things about playing music together with others that I can’t even really put into words. It just becomes this feeling of realization, wow, we’re playing, it feels so good!
The weird part is having to navigate around the normal reaction, at a gig, of grabbing each other in a celebratory and congratulatory way after we play together and saying, “hey man’’! Now when we finish, we all still have our masks on and can’t touch each other. It is a real moment of, what is going on? I’m still not used to it.
Then there is Tony Scheer and Kenny Wollesen the bass player and drummer that I’ve been playing with for 25 plus years. Tony started doing these things where we would play in front of his house, it was never announced, but everyone on his block was really into the idea so we just did it. If it was a nice day, he’d call me up and I would just yell, LET’S GO, LET’S PLAY! We’d start to play, and people would start gathering around, it was wonderful! Oh, it was so great, we did it maybe three or four times more.
JS: Was just kind of like, grab your guitar, grab your amp, come over, we’re going do this? The video recordings, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them, are made on a mobile phone, and…you just you look so happy. It’s like you are expressing with your entire body that you’re where you’re supposed to be. Your whole being is like; I’m supposed to be with these people, I’m supposed to be doing this, it doesn’t have to be in a venue…it’s totally fine that it’s in somebody’s front yard. You need to keep playing, you need the interaction.
BF: Yes, one thing that I do, and it is a good thing; as soon as this all started, I just grabbed my guitar, you know, and I play a lot at home…now it is sort of more like practicing in the way that I used to. It is now just being in my head, hour after hour and figuring things out. I haven’t had a chance to do that in a long time, and it has sort of saved me…especially at the beginning of all of this. It was great because it was like, wow, I still like playing my guitar, but that’s not what music really is.
I got my first electric guitar in the summer of 1966 and within ten minutes I was playing with other people, we had a band. My friend across the street played drums and then my other friend got a guitar and we started playing together…and that’s what it has always been about, the playing with other people.
JS: The intimacy; of the performance, of the conversation…even the non-verbal communication on stage.
BF: Yes, everything about it.
There’s so much going on when you’re in the midst of playing; It’s like the whole spectrum of human experiences. It can be some kind of aggression, or anger, sadness, happiness, whatever happened that day. It is really hard to talk about what happens.
When I’m alone and practicing, I’m gathering. I’m learning and piecing things together, trying this, and trying that. However, when I’m out playing, I’m not thinking about things like, well, this is a G minor chord, instead, I’m just like singing, you know. I’m not thinking about what the numbers and the letters and the mathematics of all of it are.
Sometimes I’ll be out playing and notice, wow, that was something I just did that I was working on 10 years ago. It takes a long time for some things to get into that place where they’re just intuitive.
JS: I was wondering if you could touch on the meaning or the significance of your tune Small Town. I’ve noticed it coming back into your recorded work in different places. The first time I personally heard it was in your Disfarmer project. It showed up on the album you did with Thomas Morgan both as an album track and title, and then again on the Americana album that was released more recently. It is a song that always forces me to stop and listen…and I love that.
BF: I just lucked out that it turned out to be a good song. That one tune just worked. Every once in a while, I’ll write a tune that kind of catches on. There are so many things I’ve written that maybe I’ll record and then I never play them again, or I don’t think about them. Small Town somehow took on a life of its own.
I recorded an album with Buddy Miller and his wife, Julie Miller in Nashville. My friend Greg Liesz who also plays on the Disfarmer project and Mark Ribot are part of the album as well, it’s called the Majestic Silver Strings. The album centers around Buddy and then Greg Leisz, Mark Ribot, and myself playing guitars. Buddy wanted to feature our guitars on a classic country record where the instrumental guitar parts got to go off a little more and be in the foreground as opposed to the vocals leading everything. He would bring in guest vocalists, Julie, Buddy’s wife wrote words to Small Town and it’s called God’s Winged Horse. We recorded it for the Majestic Strings album with Buddy and Julie singing it.
JS: If I may ask you a question that is related to photography, I was hoping to learn more about your Disfarmer project and your relationship to his photographic work, can we dig into that work some more?
BF: Yes, a man named Chuck Helm introduced me to the photographs…quite some time ago. I met him way back in the ’80s, Chuck was the Music Director for Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN. Following that, he went on to be the Director of Performing Arts at the Wexner Center in Columbus OH. He’s always been a big supporter of my work and helped me early on get some of my first gigs in the United States that I did with my own band. Somehow, he knew about me way back then and gave me so many opportunities.
Chuck had an idea to do a project based around the Disfarmer photographs and we started talking about it several years ago; he wanted to do something with me at the Walker Art Center that involved the photographs. That never materialized and it sort of petered out, but that’s how I learned about Disfarmer’s work. Then, some years went by, and he came back to me with it; he had scaled the idea back a bit. I think at first, he had wanted to do some big theatrical thing.
It was amazing seeing those photographs for the first time, early on when they weren’t well known. I think there was maybe one book of the images back then. At a certain point, there was a lot of activity around the photographs, they really hit it big and the project got fired up again. I actually went to Heber Springs, Arkansas, and met a guy that knew Disfarmer. I just kind of got into the whole project down there; knowing the photographs and then seeing the people who live there now…it hasn’t changed a whole lot. There were all kinds of stories I heard about galleries, greed, money, and the people who had the photographs. Then, hearing the stories about Disfarmer himself…I loved doing this, not just looking at the photographs, but taking in all the stories and learning about the people around him.
JS: Yes, there are many tall tales, Disfarmer was quite a character…and that is putting it lightly.
BF: Yes, so I wrote some tunes and got together with the folks that I play with and we toured with the music before we recorded it. We did some concerts and this whole thing where we projected images.
JS: Yes, I actually got to see that…not in person, but I managed to get my hands on the video recording of the live show, it was made by the director Guillaume Dero. The film shows how you had the photographs projected on the screens on stage with you. Dero also inter-spliced Disfarmer’s work into your performance to show that larger plates of the work on the whole screen.
Did Chuck Helm arrange for you to play any of the Disfarmer music in a gallery setting?
BF: We did at The Walker, The Wexner, at Duke University, and a few other performing arts spaces. We did some club dates, but we had to have enough space because we were bringing the projection screens with us. We also toured it in Europe and performed it in France, that is where the film was made. We did it in quite a number of places.
JS: Did the Gerhard Richter 858 project that you did come about in the same kind of way? At the time of its release, I was in graduate school, and finding it then was a real moment of, “oh wow, what’s this all about?” How did this come about? I was, at the time, in an MFA program and we were studying a lot of Richter’s work. The release of it was kind of serendipitous.
BF: You see, this is where I feel music is so amazing. The way it brings me to that kind of work; I wouldn’t know any of this stuff. Somehow the music will put me in a spot where these amazing opportunities keep turning up. In this case, the Richter 858 project came about because of another friend of mine, David Breskin who is a producer, I met him very soon after I came to New York. He produced a record I did with Vernon Reid called Smash and Scatteration, and another album called Power Tools with Melvin Gibbs and Robert Shannon-Jackson.
It was David’s idea, I was sort of aware of Gerhard Richter, but David actually had some of Richter’s pieces in his house…which was incredible. It was around the time of Richter’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. I got to actually be with all the paintings all in one room, just sit completely by myself for I don’t know how long, I stayed in there for a couple of hours, and just stared at them and wrote down ideas.
So, I wrote the pieces; I had, for a long time, wanted to play with a string group made up of all folks that I played with in different circumstances in other combinations. For a long time, I’d wanted to have violin, viola, and cello and myself. It was perfect, so much that after a while, the group took on a life of its own and we’ve done all kinds of stuff since then.
However, those paintings…the squeegee paintings…there’s an incredible sort of improvisational, spontaneous thing happening there…or some kind of chance going on. Then, at the same time, there’s this incredible intensity and focus within them, and then also the understanding of knowing where to go and when to stop.
Then, at the same time, there’s this incredible intensity and focus within them, and then also the understanding of knowing where to go and when to stop.
So, the way we recorded the music, which I hadn’t done in a while, was all in real-time, it wasn’t mixed or anything. It was live-to-analog to two-track tape. So we did the first track, and then we did the second track, and then we did this third one. What you hear it, it is just bam…I’m not even sure if we did it all first takes, but there’s no mixing. We had a rehearsal and learned the notes, and then we just went for it. That sort of energy is related to thinking about the way the paintings had been made; I mean, not that I could possibly know what goes on in his head…
JS: Richter is one of the most famously inaccessible artists, did you ever get a chance to meet or interact with him?
BF: No, no, David Breskin knows him, so I know he heard it… I’m not sure if he approved of it. He must have thought it was alright, otherwise, he would have not let it happen if he didn’t think it was ok.
Frisell and I both have a good laugh over the thought of Gerhard Richter disapproving of his music.
JS: Moving on, I wanted to touch on some earlier work that you did. I was hoping you could give me some insight into the film scores that you did for some of Buster Keaton’s films.
BF: Oh, yeah, that goes way back. That was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, and again, it wasn’t my idea, it was someone else, and it was an opportunity.
Whenever that was, back in the ’90s, it was performed at St. Ann’s Church (now called St. Ann’s Warehouse). It’s this huge cathedral kind of place in Brooklyn, and they would put on concerts there. Janine Nichols and Susan Feldman were the folks doing the programming there. I think it was Janine who had some access to all these Buster Keaton films, and I’d never done anything for film at all, ever. I mean, I played on someone else’s film score, but I never tried to do it myself. So, they asked me if I wanted to do this Buster Keaton project and I was, “yeah, okay, by me.” It felt like it was okay…I didn’t want to step on something that was already there. There weren’t any scores for those films. They had always been done with some live piano player, or organ or whatever they used to do. There wasn’t anything that was fixed solidly to those Keaton films, unlike Charlie Chaplin, you know, he wrote all the music for his films.
In this case, it was just the Keaton films, and there was no real set music for them, so, it felt like this kind of open invitation to just go after it…and that was, man, I had no idea what I was doing. I was absolutely and completely just throwing paint at the canvas…at random. It was like, I wonder what this will sound like if I play this? I remember that I’d watch the films and I sort of tried to map things out, or I wrote a bunch of little melodies and stuff, I had all these scraps of paper with music on it, and somehow just thinking that it would just magically come together. So, I remember the night before that we had to…we didn’t have that much rehearsal, you know, it was maybe a day or something. Luckily, I was with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron, we’d played together for years and years and years, so I had that bond, you know, that was my safety net. I just remember the night before I was staying in Joey’s apartment in New York and I had all the music strewn out over the floor and I was like, “oh my god what?!?” I started scotch taping things together right at the last minute. I think I thought it was all just going to happen somehow magically, and then I just remember the night before, I needed to organize it in some way. We were all in a kind of a panic, you know, notes taped all over the place. We had to have cues to come in and play when something particular happened on screen. It was just a really nerve-wracking situation… but somehow it worked.
The very first time we did it was traumatic, but then, what was great, after we got the hang of it is that I could just try anything and improvise and innovate. I could go against what was happening on the screen. If there was a sad moment, I didn’t have to try to make it musically sad, I could play something fast and loud, or, if there was something moving fast, I could play something slowly. I tried a lot of different things.
Another thing that kind of got me off the hook before I started to experiment more with the live performance to the silent film; I was looking at a Buster Keaton film, and I put on an Aaron Copland record as the soundtrack and it was like, just bam, bam, everything started to come together in my mind. At that moment, it felt like Copland’s music was made for that film It was there I realized, you know, I could put almost anything together and it’ll work somehow. Doing this gave me permission to just try anything.
JS: It sounds like this was one of the first things that like really forced you to work well outside of anything that you’d known?
BF: Yeah, I learned so much. With music, it’s so great when I can just let it go whatever way it’s going to go, or if I’m writing, just let the writing take me wherever. In this case, Keaton’s film makes the form and defines what it is going to be. This presents limits for me, I have to find what the music is going to be within that form, and I have to push to find some things musically that I didn’t know. Luckily, in this case, I didn’t have anyone looking over me telling me couldn’t do one thing or another. There was no director or producer to have to please so if I did something and the audience didn’t like it or didn’t respond to it, it was all my fault.
JS: It is great hearing you talk about your experience with the Keaton films, it seems a project like this really gives you an opportunity to learn about a different medium and, at the same, you learn more about the music you can make in the process. Thank you for going back so many years with me to talk about this. I feel as if I should have given you a heads up that I was going to ask you about work you did 25 years ago.
In moving things forward to the present day, you’ve released your most recent album, Valentine and with that, two videos, We Shall Overcome and Keep Your Eyes Open, both shot and directed by your daughter, Monica. In the latter, you are paging through your composition books, the pages are dated, and it is all present day, especially while we were all under lockdown. It appears you’ve been writing almost every day, what are you leaning from making your own music in the current state of affairs?
BF: Ah, right, in the Keep your Eyes Open video, you can see my notebooks, right. Well, that is how I do it, I’ll write a lot, and then I’ll go back and sift through it, find what I like, and then maybe refine it. Usually, under normal circumstances, that process is quicker, maybe about a month. I’ll write a bunch of music, then get to play it out somewhere with other folks. After that, I’ll refine it down a little more and we’ll make a record.
But now, with all that is going on and not being able to really go anywhere, it is like, whoa, insane! There’s so much stuff that I’ve written, like hundreds of things, I have gone back and it’s overwhelming. I have all these notebooks that I just keep adding to almost every day. I’ve been practicing songs on my guitar; I have gone back and refined some things I’ve written in lockdown. I have another notebook where I’ve actually copied pages of songs that have crystallized into something solid but, I don’t remember ever having that much of this stuff that’s never really been worked out. I just keep churning it out and I don’t really learn it, that is usually what always happens later when I play it with other people, that’s when I actually get the songs to where I feel they should be.
The dilemma now, or what I’m trying to figure out at this moment, as it still looks like there are quite a few months that we will still be in this situation; I have to force myself to stop. What I need to do now is just look at what I’ve accumulated, take these things I’ve written and try to learn what it is, and play it. Normally, I play it with another person, and then either throw it away or keep it to refine.
JS: You said in the interview on the Disfarmer film when somebody else plays what you write, that is when it comes alive. It seems that that is the biggest part that is missing for you at this moment as far as you being able to solidify what you’ve written recently.
BF: Oh, Yeah TOTALLY!
JS: Your recorded output is always so steady and consistent, even over this past year. In 2020, you put out Valentine; you played on and contributed to the Americana album with Grégoire Maret and Romain Collin; you’re on the Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign album with Brian Blade, Jason Moran, and Thomas Morgan, and you contributed and played on the Elvis Costello’s, Hey Clockface.
BF: That Elvis Costello record was wild, Michael Leonhart, who he did arrangements with on some of that album asked me to record stuff at home for it. It was early in the lockdown and at that point, I didn’t know how to even record at home, at all, but that’s one thing that I’ve learned. I can record my guitar into GarageBand if someone sends me something. Michael helped me figure out how to work with my iPad so that I could plug my guitar into it. He would send me things and then I’d play a couple of things, we’d send them back and forth. At a certain point, I’d played this one thing and sent it out, when Michael sent it back to me, it had Elvis Costello on it and I was like, oh wow. I did a bunch of stuff like this for Michael, I didn’t even know I was playing on an Elvis Costello record at one point. One of the pieces I recorded for him started as just sort of improvisation and then Elvis Costello put a poem on top of it.
JS: So, you’re becoming more comfortable, given the circumstance, laying down tracks and sending them out? It doesn’t seem like that’s the way that you’d really want to have to do it, but, given the consequences of what can and may happen…does it seem like that is how you are going to have to record for the time being?
BF: Yes, I’ve also been doing video stuff…it’s just so hard. The first time, I didn’t know if the camera was on, and there’s nobody there…you play and then you’re done, it’s just the weirdest feeling, you know?
JS: You’ve been making short custom soundtracks; I’m thinking specifically of the Ann Hamilton, ONEEVERYONE, Ohio video piece from April 2020. Was that recorded under lockdown? How did that project come about?
BF: Oh, yes, wow, you saw that too! That was the very first thing I did after everything happened. That was done at a point where I didn’t really know how to do anything, I just plugged my guitar basically into the memo app on my phone and just did it. That was really great because it was sort of at this moment of…I like that time when you don’t really know what you’re doing. I just kind of set up my stuff in my room and plugged the guitar into the phone and just played for whatever it was, twenty minutes or however long it is she wanted it to be.
JS: So, she (Ann Hamilton) gave you the framework of what she needed for the video piece?
BF: Yes, she knew how the images were going together in the video and I knew the story of the piece. That was really a cool thing to do at that moment. It was literally the first attempt at recording anything in the initial shock of everything that had just happened in March. I had come home from the last gig I had, in Seattle, and three days later I was supposed to go to Europe, and then it’s like, nope! Within a couple of weeks, I talked to her, and she had this idea to do this in that zone of time where everybody is completely like…”What is going on?!?“
JS: Even though we have a vaccine now, the flux of COVID and everything happening around it will still continue for some time. You’ve lived through enough of this experience, the shock has worn off, you’re finding things to continue to work on, the Ann Hamilton project being a perfect example. Given the wide breadth of people that you know, are there other writers, performers, or artists who have made work during this time that you really are responding to, or really admire?
BF: I look at Instagram, and some people are really taking this on, making something strong, using the format to put something powerful and good out there. Van Dyke Parks comes to mind, have you ever looked at his Instagram feed? Every day, he’s got some sort of historical figure up there. There is an education in just following along with the posts because he relates history to what is happening now. There’s a guitar player, Miles Okazaki…every day he has some guitar or musical thing that he’s working on. I swear, it would take a lifetime of work for me to even just grasp what he’s talking about, and he’s like, it’s like, bam, bam, bam… every day.
Sometimes it’s intimidating, you know…the level and cadence of what some of these people are producing; there’s a lot of creative genius-level people out there sharing work.
JS: Is there anybody who’s not around anymore that you wonder about, and how they would respond to everything happening now?
BF: I think about that a lot. Paul Motian, a drummer that I played with for 30 years; I would just love to know what he would think of this right now. He was so strong, whatever he did was so committed. His motto was “Fuck All Those Motherfuckers, They’re All Full of Shit!” He just went straight ahead, right on through, and wouldn’t let anything get in his way…and so I was wondering, wow, what would he be like? It would be rough on him, I can tell you that because, for him, it was about playing with people.
JS: My final question to you is, what are you looking forward to?
BF: The main thing is being able to be in a room of people again to play music. Yeah, totally…that is the number one thing.
Bill Frisell’s career as a guitarist and composer has spanned more than 40 years and many celebrated recordings, whose catalog has been cited by Downbeat as “the best-recorded output of the decade”.
“Frisell has had a lot of practice putting high concept into a humble package. Long hailed as one of the most distinctive and original improvising guitarists of our time, he has also earned a reputation for teasing out thematic connections with his music… There’s a reason that Jazz at Lincoln Center had him program a series called Roots of Americana.” – New York Times
His latest recording is Valentine, on Blue Note, a trio album with Thomas Morgan (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums) that has been hailed as “a masterpiece” by Downbeat. “They consistently and strikingly play as one, voices intertwined, completing phrases as if sharing a single thought… Even overdubs are so perfect that everything feels utterly organic… the performances represent jazz playing at its most sublime.”
Frisell’s recent album, HARMONY and has been described in the New York Times as follows:
“The eminent guitarist improvises in smoky ringlets of melody, drawing the influence of classic jazz guitar into a palette based on early American folk music. HARMONY finds Frisell playing smoldering original compositions along with a few covers alongside vocalist Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts, and guitarist and bassist Luke Bergman.”
Recognized as one of America’s 21 most vital and productive performing artists, Frisell was named an inaugural Doris Duke Artist in 2012. He is also a recipient of grants from United States Artists, Meet the Composer among others. In 2016, he was a beneficiary of the first FreshGrass Composition commission to preserve and support innovative grassroots music. Upon San Francisco Jazz opening its doors in 2013, he served as one of their Resident Artistic Directors. Bill is also the subject of a documentary film by director Emma Franz, entitled Bill Frisell: A Portrait, which examines his creative process in depth. He has received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.