A conversation with Bill Frisell: making music in 2019 and the upcoming concert in Fallon

by Brian Bahouth

Bill at the Solid Sound Festival, 2015 - photo by Austin Nelson

Reno – Bill Frisell, singer Petra Haden, percussionist Rudy Royston and bassist Tom Morgan will play a concert in the Churchill Arts Council Barkley Theatre in Fallon, Nevada on January 26.  For a few thoughts about making music in 2019, his creative influences and processes and a preview of the upcoming concert in northern Nevada, we spoke with Bill Frisell by phone and offer this sound rich mix of words and music … see music credits after the text below …

Artists draw inspiration from the world around them, so we asked Bill Frisell what was sticking in his artistic craw and if it somehow inspired his playing.

“Oh man … it might be the opposite of inspiring I guess,” Frisell said through laughter. “I stay in a lot of hotel rooms, and I can’t help but turn on the news, and it’s just … I don’t know what to say about it.  It’s pretty overwhelming, frightening, but I wouldn’t say that’s an inspiration for the music.  It’s more of a … it’s almost a distraction.  You can’t help but … if you’re playing music you can’t help but be affected by everything that happens during the day and everything that’s around you.”

Frisell has recorded nearly 40 albums and collaborated on many more, but in his vast canon few songs or albums stand out as overtly political, so we asked if there is a political song in him and if the political context of 2019 manifests itself in his music.

“Man, it’s a hard question … you know I’ll play … there are so many songs that express, they put into words a lot of things that I feel from time to time, and I’ve been known to play those songs, Masters of War or there is all these Bob Dylan songs or Woodie Guthrie songs or Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke, I’ll play that.  It’s kind of mind-blowing all the music that’s been written so long ago that’s still, it could be talking about what’s happening right now.  This Land is Your Land,” he said with a scoffing chuckle.

But for the soft-spoken Frisell, friendly musical collaboration is a metaphor for better understanding between people.

“The music is a … when I enter into the music, it’s this … I’ve said this before where the music is like a … it’s a model but it’s real but it gives you a … I keep saying it’s a picture or a model of what human beings can be.  When you think of all the words you use to describe music, you say harmony or tension and release and consonance and dissonance, harmony, rhythm.  It’s a way of fitting things together.  It shows you how people can be together.  When you’re playing with other people it’s like you’re giving and you’re taking and you’re hooked up and no one is getting hurt, so anyway I just like to be in the music … if everyone played the guitar, we’d have a lot less problems.”

Frisell is known for his ability to play melodies and extemporize with poetic facility but he is also known as an exceptional accompanying musician, a master listener.  Frisell said musical creation is about the unity of the whole and not necessarily the performance of an individual player.

“What has attracted me to music is, it’s not always what’s out in front, it’s … what I am fascinated by is how it all fits together, so if I am like listening to Miles Davis’ Quintet, you’re not just listening to Miles play a solo, you’re listening to how Herbie Hancock is playing the piano or Ron Carter is playing the bass, and how they’re … I’m listening to them listening to each other, to me that’s … or if it’s the Beatles or whatever it is, if it’s James Brown, what’s the drummer doing or what’s the bass player doing.  The stuff that’s just mind-blowing is when you start checking out how it all fits together, you know.”

Frisell has and continues to play with a wide variety of musicians and ensembles, and when he visits the Churchill Arts Center on January 26, he and singer Petra Haden, percussionist Rudy Royston and bassist Tom Morgan will play a variety of music from television and films.  In 2016 Frisell released an album titled When You Wish Upon a Star, and many of the songs heard on the album will be played in Fallon.

“So the music is all from mostly movies, and actually there is some TV stuff in there too, and it’s all stuff I have a personal  connection to it.  It’s stuff that I … when I think back about what so much of my musical life or the fabric of, not just for me but in this country, there’s so much incredible music that’s come from movies and television.

“My generation, I grew up as the TV was taking over our lives in the ‘50s,” Frisell continued.  “Thinking back to when my father came in the living room when I was a little kid bringing in this big box, and he opened it up, and I started watching TV and I’ve been watching TV ever since, but so much music came from there … from films … just extraordinary, amazing music, so this was just a chance, we made an album of … I chose a lot of stuff that had some personal resonance with me.”

That personal connection to the music is reflected in his playing.  Frisell speaks through the guitar.

“I don’t always know all the words to the songs, but even if I know just part of the words or I know what the song is about, it definitely adds more weight to what you’re playing.  It just gives you more, more to grab onto.  Or even if it is a song that has no words, just a melody … I said that before too.  I feel like my instrument, my guitar is more my true voice … so when I’m playing, it’s really, it’s more like singing than … it’s not a mechanical thing.   It’s coming from the same place that singing would be coming from.”

Bill Frisell has played the guitar for more than 50 years and says the instrument continues to present the same sense of limitless potential it did when he first began playing.

“Every day I wake up and I look at this instrument, and it still feels so much as it did the first few moments I tried to play it.  It’s just this infinity out in front of you that you haven’t gotten to yet.  You just keep taking these steps into it.”

For more from Bill Frisell, listen to the audio embedded above, a mix of words and music …

Music credits in order of appearance:

Song: Winslow Homer
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Okeh/Sony Masterworks

Song: Change in the Air
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Okeh/Sony Masterworks

Song: Masters of War
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Original Spin Music

Song: Rambler
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Okeh/Sony Masterworks

Song: To Kill a Mockingbird Pt. 1
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Okeh

Song: Happy Trails
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Okeh

Song: Kentucky Derby
Artist: Bill Frisell
Label: Okeh/Sony Masterworks