Nobody plays guitar like Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell owns sixty-three guitars, according to his biographer. Both parts of this sentence are surprising. It’s surprising that Frisell, whose records are linked by the tone he gets from his guitar – bright, lucid, both warm and dry, like tea with more lemon than honey – uses so many different instruments to get it. And it is surprising that in 2022 a living musician who does not sing is the subject of a complete biography. The book is “Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: the guitarist who changed the sound of American musicby Philip Watson, and it’s the story of a man who made music non-stop for more than forty years – in small-band jazz and experimentalism without a map and what we calls Americana, and also as a guest artist alongside great pop singers – sounding like himself all the time.
Sixty-three guitars are one of the reasons Frisell lives on a quiet Brooklyn street with no nightclubs in sight. I gave him an appointment at his place before he left on tour in Europe. I attach my bicycle to a post and find the address: a solid house from the twenties. After I knock, a voice shouts from the house next door, in Brooklyn: “What do you want?” That Frisell has been living in Brooklyn since 2017 is another surprise. For those of us who came to his work through his big ’90s electric records (for me it was “Gone, Just Like a Train”), he’s a musician from western Mississippi: raised in Denver, living in Seattle, making records in California and keeping his distance from the New York scene even as he performed regularly at (Le) Poisson Rouge and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Finding him here is what it must have been like finding Louis Armstrong in Corona or Joseph Cornell on Utopia Parkway.
Sixty-three guitars led me to expect his house to come out of a hideaway magazine—guitars on the walls, on teak stands, in sunny nooks—but no. There’s a black gig bag propped up by the door, ready for departure, and there’s a steel-string acoustic guitar on the sofa, where Frisell sits. He is tall and dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and canvas slip-on shoes. It’s easy to forget that he’s old enough to have seen Jimi Hendrix perform – twice – and to have paraded, with his clarinet, with the McDonald’s All-American High School Band at the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. 1969.
These days, when playing with a small band – a combination of guitar, viola, drums and pedal steel, for example – they often end the set with a frenzied arrangement of “Benny’s Bugle”, a better-known piece from a 1940 record that features Benny Goodman on clarinet and Charlie Christian on electric guitar. I ask him if he is still in touch with his inner clarinetist. “It took a while for me to appreciate the connection, but it’s pretty huge, actually,” he says. “I played from fourth grade through college, learned all the basics, learned to read music. My first teacher was super strict. It wasn’t really fun, but there was the discipline of having to practice every day. It was super mechanical. I pressed the right buttons, did everything right, but my heart wasn’t in it. Then I got a guitar and the connection was immediate.
The guitar that hooked him was a white Fender Mustang. Leo Fender, who ran a radio repair shop in Fullerton, California, had developed a line of mass-produced electric guitars with sturdy bodies, bolt-on necks and resplendent paint jobs, like those found in cars of the day. . Mustangs were sold by the thousands to children who had seen the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, in February 1964 – as Frisell did – and then picked up the guitar. I think aloud: would he have remained faithful to the clarinet all these years if Fender had released an electric model? “A cool looking bright red thing with fins on it?” he said laughing. “That was the thing with the guitar, at the age I was first drawn to: It was the age of hot rods.”
It’s an article of faith among guitarists that Fender’s electric instruments have changed the world, and Frisell’s faithful are concerned about his mid-career shift from hand-built guitars to Fender Telecasters. But the kind of acoustic guitar that sits next to Frisell on the couch—small body, light spruce top, round rosette, dark wood neck and sides—is a world-changing instrument in its own right. In 1922, CF Martin, who had been making guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania since the 1830s, began offering a production model guitar with steel strings rather than gut. (Steel strings respond well to a pick and are noisier than gut or nylon strings when fingered.) In the same year, Gibson, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, developed the L-5, a steel-string guitar with a particularly resonant bow. High. These instruments moved guitar music out of the living room and onto the porch – and into the barn dance, the blues session, the bluegrass jam, the union rally, the coffee shop and the civil rights rally – and what you could call the century of the guitar was on its way.
Frisell’s music of the past three decades draws on those early steel-string years to a striking degree. Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Wildwood Flower,” made popular by a Carter family recording the following year, are staples of his repertoire. What is it, I ask him, about this decade, these songs, these suddenly steely guitar sounds? “In my mind, all the things you just mentioned don’t seem old to me,” he said. “All this music feels alive and radical to me. It’s not worn out, that’s for sure. There is more to do with that. I mean, ‘Hard Times’ [by Stephen Foster]- It’s from the 1800s, and it’s a tough time right now. There’s all this history, and it’s like the history attaches to the songs and they always reveal more.
In the book “Beautiful Dreamer”, Watson highlights Frisell’s reverence for three jazz geniuses: trumpeter Miles Davis, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and pianist Thelonious Monk, all composers. But Frisell has another set of forerunners in the steel-string guitar tradition. Maybelle Carter played a steel string acoustic. Much like Blind Willie Johnson, using a pocket knife as a slide. Just like Leadbelly (a twelve string) and Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. So did Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, so did Boubacar Traoré, a Malian griot whose personal influence on Frisell was considerable. “I met him in Seattle, him and [the percussionist] Sidiki Camara,” Frisell says. “They were on tour. I was invited to this dinner, with them, and they handed the guitar to Boubacar. We were just sitting around the table [as he played]and I was, like, ‘Holy shit, what is this that?’ I couldn’t tell what was going on, and I thought he had the guitar tuned in a weird way. Then he handed me the guitar and said, “Now you play,” and I thought I wouldn’t be able to play this guitar. But the guitar was tuned in standard tuning after all. “We were supposed to do a concert together, and then 9/11 happened, and he didn’t want to travel,” Frisell says ruefully. They haven’t seen each other since, but Frisell has featured Traore’s “Baba Dramé” and his own tribute, “Boubacar,” on half a dozen recordings and performed them live hundreds of times.
The biography is jam-packed with musical encounters, so numerous that every two pages there is an unreleased Frisell recording for the reader to seek out. Looking for a King Sunny Adé record, Frisell went to the Downtown Music Gallery, a record store then on East Fifth Street in Manhattan, and ended up talking to the man behind the counter, John Zorn, the saxophonist and composer; they have played together on and off ever since. He made records with Ron Carter and with trumpeter Chet Baker, who was addicted to heroin. (“The last time I saw him, in Paris, he tells me, it was snowing and he didn’t have his shoes on.”) He plays with Ginger Baker, of Cream; as well as Norah Jones and Paul Simon; with sixties jazz stalwarts Elvin Jones and Charles Lloyd; and with folksong scholar Sam Amidon. He does twenty eight records with Paul Motian, known as the drummer of Bill Evans’ trio. For years, Motian’s late-summer residency at the Village Vanguard, along with Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, has been a bridge between the horn-based jazz tradition and the rock guitar émigrés that make up a great part of Frisell’s fan base. Motian died in 2011 and Frisell maintained the residency. On YouTube, the club’s red background remains the same across dozens of videos, while Frisell plays different guitars from one to the next.
I point out that Motian has been gone for over ten years and suggest that Frisell has taken his place as a musical statesman.