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Cover Story: The Real Guitar Hero

Bill Frisell is one of contemporary music's most original and influential forces

By Brian Baker · April 2nd, 2008 · Cover Story
  Bill Frisell says MusicNOW is
Bill Frisell says MusicNOW is "just another opportunity to play and grow and figure out new things in the music."

When fans talk about their favorite guitarists, hundreds of names are put forth and endlessly debated. When guitarists talk about their favorite guitarists, one name consistently winds up on the short lists of some of the world's greatest players: Bill Frisell.

To merely list Frisell's 30-plus albums would take up a good portion of this story, and his collaborations on and contributions to other artists' albums would require another page (the truncated version would include John Zorn, Elvis Costello, Ginger Baker, Van Dyke Parks, Marianne Faithfull, John Scofield, Jan Garbarek, Lyle Mays, Vernon Reid, Wayne Horvitz, Hal Willner, film director Gus Van Sant, David Sylvian, Petra Haden and Brian Eno).

The word count would truly exceed space considerations if we were to detail every superlative that's ever been associated with Frisell's work, but the top three ("masterpiece," "visionary" and "genius") offer an insight into the kind of respect and awe his guitar virtuosity inspires among critics and his musical peers alike. The New Yorker once famously noted that "Bill Frisell plays the guitar like Miles Davis played the trumpet."

Frisell tends to look past the accolades to the work itself and the purer joy of creation.

"I'm glad people like it, but I have to kind of not pay too much attention to that stuff, whether it's positive or negative," the soft-spoken Frisell says from his Seattle home. "I'm the one that knows how close I've come to what it is I'm trying to do. I'm probably the only one, actually. It may be a trap to take that stuff too seriously. I'm thankful for all the attention, because it allows me to keep doing what I'm doing, but it's also kind of dangerous.

"I have to stay true to what my own ideas are for moving ahead. Every day when I pick up the guitar or try to write something, it feels like I'm right at the beginning. It doesn't feel that much different from when I first picked up the guitar 45 years ago. You still have to kind of start from where you are."

An artist of Frisell's caliber is in constant demand, so his appearance at the third installment of MusicNOW is something of a coup for the festival. For Frisell, it's simply a continuation of his life's goal to do what he loves best.

"It's hard for me to say no to anything," he says, laughing. "For me, it's just another opportunity to play and grow and figure out new things in the music. And I'm excited to come to Cincinnati. I think I might have played there once."

Frisell's anticipation about MusicNOW is not just about the festival itself or his sophomore visit to the Queen City. He's equally stoked about his repeat appearance with a renowned trio of string players violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts who played on Frisell's 2004 Grammy-winning Unspeakable album.

"I've known these guys for a really long time, but the first thing we did with this group was music I wrote for this German painter, Gerhardt Richter," Frisell says. "Someone asked me to write music to go along with these paintings by Richter. That was the first time we played together as a group, and from that it kind of took on a life of its own."

Although Frisell might be most closely associated with Jazz, his musical experimentation has found him uniquely incorporating everything from Bluegrass to Americana to Blues to Classical to World music of every stripe into his guitar arsenal. His music has also found an appropriate home in soundtracks, from films by Gus Van Sant and Wim Wenders to the television score for cartoonist Gary Larsen's foray into animation, Tales from the Far Side.

Frisell brings into the studio the same ethic that sparks his live work.

"It's definitely a place where you can push ahead further, trying things that you've never done before," Frisell says of the studio. "That's one of the most exciting things. You're in this safe environment, you can't get hurt. That's the greatest feeling: "Let"s try this, even though it seems crazy.' It might work, and that adds something else to your vocabulary."

Frisell's most recent album, last year's Floratone, is a concentrated example of his organic process. Starting with drummer Matt Chamberlain and acclaimed producer Tucker Martine, the trio (along with a host of guests) created a compelling work of ambient beauty and deeply ingrained grooves.

"We didn't even know it was going to be an album at the beginning," Frisell says. "It started out with just Matt and myself, with no plan at all, just improvising stream of consciousness, playing whatever came into our minds. That was probably the least planned out or preconceived thing I've ever done. We let Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine take all that material and find these nuggets where it felt like a cohesive form, and then we took that and added things to it and shaped it. That was really fun to do."

Although Frisell's MusicNOW appearance is part of a small tour he's undertaking in the guitar/string trio format, he doesn't have a program envisioned for the tour in general or the festival in particular.

"You spend your life preparing for the music and when you're right in the midst of it you kind of give yourself into whatever's going on at the moment," Frisell says. "There is a lot of preparation, but you have to let things go, depending on circumstances. For me, the best things happen when you're open to whatever the circumstances are."

Because of Frisell's completely unique place in American music, he's never been chained to the industry model of write/record/tour/repeat. Like the sounds he's been wringing from his guitar for the past three decades, he's that rarest of musical commodities: a true original.

"That doesn't really work for me," Frisell says of the standard artist's touring cycle. "That's never made sense for me with the way music evolves. It"s a little bit confusing for the audience or for the people booking the gigs, because they never know quite what they're going to get. But I feel really lucky that there are enough people around that are willing to follow along wherever it is I'm going. That's what's exciting for me and I hope it transfers over into the audience, that feeling of discovery.

"That's what music is. You never get to the end of it, you just keep moving through it."

BILL FRISELL and his 858 Quartet perform at MusicNOW Thursday at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.



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