Metaphors are certainly going to get confused when describing the work of guitarist Bill Frisell. During three decades of recorded works, Frisell has worked various teeming waters of American music, mining the rich vein of our collective musical heritage, while traveling restlessly down many a back road looking for sonic adventure. How else, aside from abusing metaphors, does one describe a musician who — via his mastery of his instrument, his musical curiosity and total immersion in his work — can truly share company with Miles Davis?
Frisell, at least to the record store clerk who has to file his CDs, is a "jazz guitarist." And he is, indeed, rightly renowned for coaxing some of the world's most exciting sounds, tones and textures from his ax, utilizing a pure, improvisational grace and sense of invention that's just plain rare. It's from this foundation of serious play that the artist — trained at Berklee and tested as a frequent session guitarist for heavy-duty "new music" imprint ECM early in his career — has built a recorded discography that runs from avant-leaning new music to new playfully emotional soundtrack scores for old Buster Keaton silent films; from covering the Foo Fighters to getting down in a serious way with his bi-coastal jazz combos. Blues, country, classical, rock. Whatever you got, Frisell will mine it. So what connects this eclecticism? Restlessness perhaps. But for Frisell, it's all part of his ongoing investigation of music as a way to obliterate boundaries.
"I think for me, trying to learn and get to the next step, there's this vast ocean of stuff out there and it seems natural to me to just be sort of looking around doing different things all the time," says Frisell over the phone from his Seattle home.
"I guess that's restless, but music is such a fantastic world to be in that I wanna just grab at all this stuff and check it out," he continues. "It also doesn't seem like there have to be rules about having to do just one thing. I love the way it can all work together somehow. Things have become so segregated with the labels today that there's a name and genre for everything and it's all divided up into these categories. And the categories don't have much to do with the actual music. But it can all kinda work together in one big world."
For Frisell, then, music is the lens through which he investigates how people fit together as opposed to set themselves apart. And that makes sense. Consider this intergenerational nugget: Earlier in his career, Frisell played with jazz great Charlie Haden and they've remained friends. Years later, Frisell struck up a conversation about music with Haden's daughter, Petra, a well-known L.A.-based rock musician whose band, that dog, was embraced by alt-rockers and power-pop aficionados in the late '90s. (More recently, she's received attention for recording the Who's The Who Sell Out album, singing all parts, vocal and instrumental, herself.) The end result? The 2003 recording, Petra Haden & Bill Frisell, on which two principals recorded the aforementioned Foos cover, as well as jams by Tom Waits, Coldplay and Jiminy Cricket, with Haden's vocals and Frisell's guitar work coaxing new colors and feeling from some familiar songs. This is just one genre-busting example of his range. But it's especially telling in that it demonstrates how Frisell seems to connect, blend and bridge gaps via his musical gift. And it also reveals a sense of humor that's just gotta serve him well in the sometimes oh-so-serious worlds of jazz and new music.
"Humor is definitely in there," he agrees. "But I think that's in music in general, there's the whole range of whatever happens within human beings. Playing with other musicians is a conversation. So there's definitely humor. But you could also be expressing something serious, crying or laughing — and music just encompasses all that stuff.
"It doesn't make sense for music to be just dark all the time. So much of the time, the people I'm playing with are my really close friends and it's just natural that we joke around."
So in a stroke of true inspiration, Tom Allen, the curator for the "8 Days in June" program at the DSO, hooked a musician with a jazz foundation, catholic tastes and a yen for using music to converse and connect, tapping him to headline the evening titled "Spontaneous Creation." Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." By extension, chance would favor the prepared musicians being asked to spontaneously create — at a set time, in front of a paying audience.
Besides putting Frisell at the center of this experiment with his quintet (featuring bass guitarist Tony Scherr, drummer Randy Royston, saxophonist Chris Cheek and trumpeter Ron Miles), Allen has also paired him with two other, disparate musicians.
"The first half of the program they've put me together with these other musicians I don't really know," says Frisell. "There's a baroque guitar player — an early music guy — and a violinist. They're coming from a completely different world than I am. The idea is that we're supposed to get together that day and try to figure out how to make music together.
"They wanted to make sure that [spontaneous creation] was going to happen!" he laughs. "I've actually met the baroque guitar player [Stephen Stubbs]. It turns out he lives in Seattle. And he's excited to just try something new. I don't know what it'll sound like but it'll be fun — at least for us."
If we return to the land of metaphors, perhaps Frisell's approach to music is a way of seeing, hearing and being in the world that we could extend to other areas of our lives. Certainly, Frisell has found the language of music key to opening up new worlds of understanding.
"I've learned to trust that it always seems to work, no matter what world you come from," he observes. "There's so much energy these days that just goes into dividing stuff up. But those various labels and terms don't have anything to do with whether people can play together or not.
"And as long as people are open and interested in each other, music just becomes like a conversation. I've found that and gotten more and more sure of that over the years. In fact, the only time it doesn't work is when people don't listen to each other. There has to be a common ground. With music, that's just the way it works."
The Bill Frisell Quintet plays Friday, June 20, as part of the DSO's 8 Days in June Music Festival at Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-576-5111. Go to 8daysinjune.com/index for a full schedule and more info.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org