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Guitarist without portfolio

Graham Reid · 14 March 2017

The great Bill Frisell is a musical itinerant who rarely rests in any genre.

Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell, featuring Petra Haden, Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston, 8pm, Wednesday 7 June, Opera House, as part of the 2017 Wellington Jazz Festival.

Bill Frisell: A Portrait, exclusive film preview and live artist Q&A, 5.30pm—8.30pm, Tuesday 6 June, Light House Cinema Cuba, as part of the 2017 Wellington Jazz Festival. For Culture Club supporters only, strictly limited capacity, first come, first served, two tickets per supporter. Not a supporter yet? Learn more.

No matter where on the musical spectrum you try to place American guitarist/composer Bill Frisell — one of the international headliners at the 2017 Wellington Jazz Festival — he always seems like the outsider on the inside.

Trying to get a clear picture of him is like looking through a prism: from one perspective he's a jazz musician, from another the distinctive guitarist on albums by Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Looked at another way he’s a country-cum-Americana musician and with another glance through the glass he's a contemporary classical composer.

Or maybe an avant-garde guy with Downtown New York City darlings like saxophonist John Zorn and drummer Joey Baron in the 1980s.

Frisell — born in Baltimore in March 1951 but spending his formative youth in Denver — is a musical itinerant who rarely rests in any genre. But to whatever project he is part of, and in his diverse solo work, Frisell brings his signature tone, which can be glistening, mercurial, full of texture and sustain, and deftly deploying a range of effects with constraint and nuance.

He can paint a sonic landscape as wide as West Texas or sound anxiously claustrophobic like a turbulent subway platform.

His eclectic taste is emblematic of a man who grew up with surf guitar records, the Beatles and the British Invasion alongside Jimi Hendrix and his jazz interest in Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.

In 2011 he recorded All We are Saying, an album of John Lennon songs.

“I really sort of grew up as rock'n'roll was being born, and as Fender guitars were being born,” Frisell told three years ago on the release of his album Guitar in the Space Age. “The atmosphere, at that time, there was this kind of optimism in the air, with, ‘Oh, we're gonna go to outer space’ and ‘everything's gonna be so great!’”

Even today the genial musician has that optimistic spirit and, although looking ahead in terms of exploring musical sounds, he has interpreted songs by Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Thelonious Monk, Sam Cooke, Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, Merle Travis, Ray Davies . . .

On his recent album When You Wish Upon a Star, he explores themes from classic movies and television shows.

It's as if his past is always present while he engages the now and the many possible futures his curiosity allows.

Frisell’s eclecticism began early: he built his own guitar at age four (cardboard and rubber bands), his first record was the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe/Surfer Girl, he picked up saxophone for a while then moved to clarinet. He took music at the University of North Colorado before attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston for a semester, then studied guitar with Jim Hall in New York City for two months.

He was learning from the best and would later spend two years at Berklee.

In the early 1980s, Frisell began recording for the emerging ECM label — recommended to company founder Manfred Eicher by ECM guitarist Pat Metheny — and his distinctive tone and versatility (as well as Eicher’s ethic of shifting players through different line-ups) meant he played alongside saxophonists Jan Garbarek, John Surman and Joe Lovano, pianist Paul Bley and drummer Paul Motian, among many others.

He did three albums under his own name for ECM before moving to Nonesuch, which was recording innovative emerging artists such as avant-garde minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass and the groundbreaking Kronos Quartet.

Frisell fitted seamlessly into this roster and enjoyed a 20-year association with the label, recording albums designed to accompany Buster Keaton silent movies, loving tributes to country music (Nashville) and The Sweetest Punch in 1999 with Elvis Costello, which included variations of songs from Costello’s Painted from Memory collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

The man many once thought of as a jazz musician was known to the adult rock audience through appearances on albums by Costello, Tom Waits and Lou Reed. And then the tick-list really began: Dr John, Brian Eno, Paul Simon, Keith Richards ...

He wrote orchestral scores, was nominated for the jazz Grammy in 2003 for Intercontinentals and won two years later with Unspeakable, which features samples, synthesizer and a string section.

Critics often grapple with how to describe Frisell but the rock magazine Spin came amusingly close when it dubbed him the Clark Kent of the electric guitar: “Soft-spoken and self-effacing in conversation, he apparently breathes in lungfuls of raw fire when he straps on his [guitar].”

In the excellent documentary Bill Frisell: A Portraitscreening in the jazz festival with a Frisell Q&A session afterward — his venerable longtime friend Jim Hall describes Frisell as “a far-out, cloud-like eminence”.

But, I’d suggest, one looked at through a prism.

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Graham Reid writes about music, travel and the arts at and elsewhere.

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