Bill Frisell talks about music the way Stephen Hawking talks about time; the guitarist is enamored of the smallest details and fascinated with the enormity of it all. "Music itself is this infinite thing," he says from a New York hotel during his quartet's weeklong stint at the Village Vanguard. "No matter how far you get into it, you're always standing at the very beginning, and you'll never get to the end. There's always this incredible thing right in front of you or just past your grasp, and it keeps pulling you up into it."
This exploratory attitude should be no shock to those familiar with Frisell's sprawling discography. Bill has made records with jazz icons (Ron Carter, John Scofield), folk singers (Lucinda Williams, Loudon Wainwright III) and pop stars (Paul Simon, Elvis Costello). Many were introduced to Frisell during his fifteen-year run as a member of John Zorn's weirdo ensemble Naked City, but Frisell considers his work with drummer Paul Motian — who called Frisell based on a recommendation from guitarist Pat Metheny — to be the turning point of his career.
"In 1981, I'd been in New York for a few years scuffling along when Paul Motian contacted me," Frisell recalls. "That was a big moment, having someone like that who wanted to play with me. I was lucky enough to get called by anybody at the time. If I was, it would be from somebody who needed a guitar player to play a certain way. Paul really wanted me to be myself, and that gave me a lot of confidence to keep going."
Thirty years later, Bill Frisell is one of the most singular guitarists around. He has lent his name to dozens of albums of mysterious instrumental music that flirt with the most vague fringes of jazz. His style is patient and decidedly un-flashy, steeped in the earnestness of Americana and adventurousness of the avant-garde. Unlike many jazz guitarists, he utilizes his unique skill set for texture rather than indulging in the shred-fests of which he is certainly capable.
One of Frisell's defining characteristics is the use of effects to extend his sonic palette, a scandalous practice among jazz purists. "I'm always hearing something in my head that's beyond what I can get out," Frisell says. "Maybe I'll hear the sound of an orchestra in my imagination, but I only have a guitar, so I'll take some kind of stab at it. In a way, if I use effects, I'm just implying something, trying to mimic some other imaginary sound. It could be anything, a different musical instrument or traffic noise or who knows what."
The inner landscapes Frisell conjures from his instrument have become apt soundtracks for films like Finding Forrester and The Million Dollar Hotel. His current quartet with bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and trumpeter Ron Miles was assembled to provide music for a work by visual artist Bill Morrison. "He's making a film using old archival footage of the 1927 Mississippi River flood," Frisell says. "So we're going to play in New Orleans and Mississippi, and we're traveling to St. Louis on our way up the river."
Scherr and Wollesen accompanied Frisell on his 2005 live record East/West, and Ron Miles has appeared on four of Frisell's releases, but this project finds the four musicians playing together for the first time. For Frisell, bringing the group to places affected by the mighty Mississippi's power is a study in immersion. "I really wanted to be in the actual physical places where this stuff happened with these guys and be all together, rather than just write music and then go into the studio and have it be this completely abstract thing," he says. "I really believe that's going to have an effect on the music."
With a group as improvisational as Frisell's quartet, "writing" is a difficult term to define. "More and more the lines between what's written and what's improvised and what's arranged are blurred," Frisell says. "We have those words for all of those things we do, but when I say I write the music, maybe I'll write some little melody, but what it causes the other musicians to do is so much more than whatever it is I wrote on a piece of paper. It's like a little seed of something, and hopefully it's alive, and when we play, it keeps growing.
"You have to be open all the time. It seems like every time I try to preconceive what's going to happen on a particular night or concert, I'll get in trouble because it takes me away from being ready at the moment for what's really happening. I have to be open to what the guys I'm playing with are coming up with and ready for things to be different."
For Frisell, performance is affected by much more than what happens onstage. While referring to the quartet's residency at the Village Vanguard, he says, "It's the same room every night, and it's an amazing place to play. But every set, the room sounds different based on who's in the audience and how many people are in there and what people are drinking and wearing and everything."
Many musicians are attuned to the energy of a crowd, but very few are concerned with the physical acoustic properties of individual audience members. Frisell is. This ability to identify and adapt to unique situations makes him an in-demand collaborator for musicians of all genres. Frisell recently made guest appearances on two highly disparate records: Paul Simon's 2006 album Surprise and the 2008 release The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull by Seattle drone-metal outfit Earth. "Actually, what I did and the way my brain worked was very similar on both albums," Frisell recalls. "The music is different, but I don't really change what I do. I find myself in these situations, and I just play."
Frisell seems hesitant to overanalyze his music or approach. And like most musicians of his ilk, he shows obvious discomfort with the term "jazz." This was a recurring theme in the acclaimed 2009 documentary Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, which features a performance and interview with Frisell. In one of the film's early climaxes, critic Paul de Barros questions the current state of jazz and singles out Frisell, saying, "We understand the connection between Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman with black freedom. We do not understand the connection between Bill Frisell and our culture."
Bill Frisell is unlikely to issue a rebuttal, nor does he need to. The societal connection and the grand gesture of Frisell's work is his endless, almost childlike appreciation of music and complete lack of respect for any imposed boundaries. "For me [music is] just part of being human. It's endless, but it all comes from the same place; eventually it just gets back to the first note that some caveman made, and that was it. The only reason it's divided up [into genres] is for business and selling things or so you can describe them. To me it's just way larger than anybody can put into words."