Frisell reaches millions of ears with just six strings

by Lindsay Barnes | 1/15/04 6:00am

He hasn't been on any magazine's Top 100 Guitarists, but for decades, his guitar has been ever-present in rock and pop music. Playing with everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Norah Jones, Frisell has added his own personal touch to many great records. He is also a bona fide solo artist. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music, he traveled to Europe, where his focus shifted to his own composition. Since then, he has explored innumerable genres of music throughout his career. Frisell will be foraying into jazz Friday night when his Bill Frisell Trio shares the bill with the Brad Mehldau Trio at the Hopkins Center.

Frisell recently sat down and spoke with The Dartmouth about the many faces and places he's seen.

The Dartmouth: Your initial interest in guitar came from pop music and Chicago blues. What first turned you on to jazz?

Bill Frisell: One thing led to another, and to go from blues to jazz wasn't such a big leap. There was blues music I was listening to, then there was soul, and Wes Montgomery was the first jazz guitarist I listened to. But he was playing more commercial stuff, so that wasn't much of a leap. So, from there it led into all the other music. That started getting more away from the guitar; that's when I started listening to other instruments.

TD: What was it about the year you spent in Belgium (1978) that made you focus for the first time on writing your own compositions?

BF: It was by default really; there wasn't really anything else to do. We were there with a whole band, didn't have much music and didn't have many gigs, so we were all just sitting around. I'd just gotten out of school, and I was trying to get out of that school mode and doing assignments and that being the motivation for writing. When I got to Europe, there wasn't any assignment involved; it was for the pure sake of trying to figure out some music. I kind of think of that as the foundation for what I'm still doing now.

TD: Nonesuch Records has a reputation as an "artist friendly" label. Do you find this to be the case and how is it different from other "major" labels?

BF: For me, it's just an unreal dream situation, a lot of it because I've been there for something like 15 years with the same people, and that's almost unheard of these days. Nowadays, people only last maybe a year sometimes with a label. The coolest thing is that they've stuck with me. I don't sell a huge amount, but they're looking at it as a long-term thing. They're not trying to sell a bunch of records and then move on to the next thing. But, even with Nonesuch, I'm scared. It's under someone, someone bought someone, it's owned by one of the big ones. I can't follow it all, but I'm scared one day some guy with a cigar in some skyscraper will say, "That's not making enough money." So I know it can't go on forever, but I really feel lucky that I have that.

TD: How is playing for someone else different than recording your own albums?

BF: It takes away the whole responsibility from having to think about the whole picture, but I still do. I'd like to think that what I'm playing has an impact on the whole overall thing. But it takes away that stress of, "Oh God, this is my thing." You can just worry about playing. Not having to worry about all that other stuff, sometimes it's nice.

TD: When you sat in on the sessions for Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me," did you think it was going to be as huge a hit as it was?

BF: I knew there was a feeling that something was going on. They knew she was going to do something. But not like that. That was just insane. I couldn't believe it. Last summer, I was going to go see her, I hadn't seen her in a while and the concert's supposed to start at eight, and it's at this big park outside Seattle. And I get to a few miles before the park, and the traffic just stops. And I thought there must be an accident, but it was just all the people going to the concert. This from playing tiny clubs with tiny audiences. It's pretty wild.

TD: You've worked with a lot of luminaries over the years, so I'd just like to do some free association with you, if you don't mind. Bono?

BF: He was an amazing musician. It kind of freaked me out how he could just make up stuff on the spot, instantaneously improvise music in a really strong way, words and music. Super- creative and also really, really a sweet person, no superstar kind of crap.

TD: Elvis Costello?

BF: He's another one where being a huge star hasn't influenced him. He's got an incredible respect for other musicians and the musical community. He's always checking things out. He's got an encyclopedic mind and knows so much music. He has a real humility and real respect for other players. I think that's a really cool thing. And he still has a really strong voice of his own and strong opinions, but he's open to everything and always learning.

TD: Marianne Faithfull?

BF: That was a wild thing, because when I made the first recording with her, a lot of it was just her and me alone, starting out. Other things were added later, but it was just the two of us in there. That was an interesting thing for me because one of the first songs I learned by ear was "As Tears Go By," which we did again with her, and it was a weird dream-like state. I've grown up and she's grown up, and I'm in there with someone who had been around when I first started getting interested in music. The way she can present a song, she's got a thing about being able to turn the song into a story. She holds your attention on the story of the song. She has a talent for telling a story.

TD: Allen Ginsberg?

BF: That was amazing. It was just great. He's another one that's kind of larger than life. I'm was kind of in awe of him; it was great to be around him. After I met him, he would come to hear me play every once in a while. He has a quality that you felt like you knew him for a long time. He was great.