Bill Frisell – The Places Where There Are Connections
One might not be too surprised to learn that Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers has given guitar lessons to someone who once gave lessons to Lucinda Williams’ ace guitarist Kenny Vaughan — but few would fathom that the “someone” in the middle of that equation would be Bill Frisell, one of the most renowned and respected jazz players of the last 20 years.
The timeline of that unlikely chain of guitar lessons also tells an integral part of Frisell’s story. It was during his post-collegiate days in Colorado in the early 1970s that Frisell tutored a teenage Vaughan. Yet it was just two years ago, long after he’d worked with everyone from John Zorn to Marianne Faithfull to Elvis Costello, that Frisell sought out Barnes’ expertise in bluegrass and old-time forms. The moral is that the master is still very much a student — eager to discover different methods of expressing himself musically, excited to soak up sounds and styles that may be old as the hills but are brand-new to someone delving into them for the first time.
Frisell’s most recent records for the Nonesuch label — Nashville (1997), Gone, Just Like A Train (1998) and Good Dog, Happy Man (1999) — have found him venturing into the realm of traditional American music. Though he’s surveying the landscape through the eyes of a jazz guitarist, the terrain is markedly different than the ground he covered a decade or so ago with the likes of experimental outfits such as Naked City or Power Tools. Then again, there was a time when jazz, country, bluegrass and other genres that seem so segregated today were all sprouting from the same seeds. Part of the mystery of music is divining its intertwined roots, and unearthing them in all their gnarled glory.
Though Frisell’s following during his 20-year career has largely been overseas, his recent records have been finding increased favor with American audiences. A monthlong slate of shows this fall (with a revolving cast of musicians that included pedal steel player Greg Leisz, bassists David Piltch and Viktor Krauss, and drummers Kenny Wolleson and Brian Blade) constituted his most extensive U.S. tour in years. During a weeklong break in November in his hometown of Seattle before he headed to Europe for a stint with his longtime cohort and mentor Paul Motian, Frisell stopped by the No Depression home base for a discussion that merely scratched the surface of his considerable adventures and explorations.
I. THIS WIDE-OPEN, CHILDLIKE CURIOSITY ABOUT EVERYTHING
NO DEPRESSION: How did the Nashville record come about?
BILL FRISELL: The record company, Nonesuch, who I’ve been recording with for ten years, said, ‘What would you think about going to Nashville and recording?’ And I was like, ‘Well, sure, I’d love to play with these people.’ But I didn’t know anyone there….So I went down there and I met Adam Steffey [mandolin] and Ron Block [banjo], and very briefly Viktor Krauss [bass]. But I started with Ron and Adam; I basically spent a half-hour just talking to them, and they seemed like they were open to try to play with me.
We’d never played together, and I didn’t know what they would think of my music. It was kind of a scary situation for me. I mean, I kinda thrive on going into situations and playing with people that I don’t know, but it’s usually when someone else is the leader of the thing. I’ve always loved doing that, but this was the first time where it was my record. And this was the first time I’d ever played with a banjo player or a mandolin player.
ND: But you’ve played banjo yourself on a couple of your records, haven’t you?
BF: Well, it’s really pretty fake banjo; I have a tenor banjo that I have tuned like a guitar. But since going to Nashville, it’s opened these floodgates for me. When I went down there and did that record, I had never really tried to play in that style. And I think that’s maybe what saved me — because I wasn’t trying to play like Doc Watson or something like that. I think then it would have been a total disaster. But having gone there, it made me want to spend more time checking out some of this kind of music. It was soon after that when I met Danny [Barnes]. I heard Danny play at the Tractor Tavern with Mark Graham; they opened for Del McCoury. And I was totally freaked out, it was just so strong….So I called up Danny to see if I could take lessons with him.
ND: A lot of people would probably be surprised at the thought of you going to someone for guitar lessons.
BF: Well, yeah, but still, it’s like I’m just a total beginner. That’s what’s so inspiring but also kind of intimidating about this whole area of music. It’s just so different. Well, it is different, but then what I’m always looking for is the places where there are connections, you know. And if people are open, there’s always a way you can play together. That’s what’s so cool about Danny; he’s real open to anything. He’s not like locked into this thing and thinking, ‘Well, I’m from this world and you’re from that world.’
ND: In the early ’90s you worked a fair amount with jazz clarinetist Don Byron. How did you get hooked up with him?
BF: I actually first met him in Europe; I had just arrived and I was completely jetlagged and tired, and I was in this hotel and I went to sleep, in the middle of the afternoon. And then I heard this clarinet in the room next door, at first playing some real simple scale kind of thing. And then they started playing Mozart clarinet concerto, which I had played [Frisell’s first instrument, during his childhood years, was clarinet]. And then it went completely out from there. And I was like, man — I didn’t know if I was dreaming, or what — but I had to find out who this guy was. And later that afternoon, someone introduced me to him. So it wasn’t long after that that we started playing. He’s one of those guys, like I was saying about Danny — he plays the clarinet, but he just plays anything. He’s really open to all kinds of music.