The defining characteristic of any given jazz musician is frequently his sound. The more control a player has over the nature of that sound, the more likely he is to project a distinctive musical personality. For example, a saxophonist has virtually unlimited physical control of the sound that comes through his horn, and therefore a wide range of tonal expression at his command, which partially explains the disproportionate number of saxophonists in the pantheon of great jazz musicians. On the other hand, few electric guitarists inhabit that realm, in part because the typical jazz guitar sound differs little from player to player. In general, guitarists do not have the same degree of physical control. Without the use of signal processing -- which jazz purists shun -- they're mostly stuck with the generic sound that comes out of their amp. Hence, guitarists have historically tended to "sound" more or less the same.
Bill Frisell is a notable exception. Among jazz guitarists, Frisell is unique in his exploitation of variable timbre. Frisell's sound swells and breathes like a saxophonist's (interestingly, Frisell played clarinet as a child). In many ways his sound is reminiscent of a pedal steel guitar. And although his work is steeped in jazz, Frisell is a man of Catholic tastes. His music includes characteristics of rock, country, and bluegrass, among various other styles. Such liberality explains his willingness to expand his tonal palette beyond that of the typical jazz guitarist. Where so many conventional jazz guitarists define themselves by how many notes they can play, Frisell has carved a niche by virtue of his sound. His ability as an original, lyrical player of melody combines with a unique (if much imitated) sound to make him one of the most singular musicians of his generation.
Born in Baltimore, Frisell grew up in Denver, Colorado. He began playing the clarinet in the fourth grade and took up guitar a few years later for his personal amusement. He continued with the clarinet, playing in school concerts and marching bands. Frisell briefly considered playing classical clarinet professionally. He played guitar in rock and R&B bands as a teenager (high school classmates included Philip Bailey, Andrew Woolfolk, and Larry Dunn, future members of the funk group Earth, Wind & Fire). He discovered jazz in the music of Wes Montgomery and began to study it. Dale Bruning, a Denver-based guitarist and educator, fed his fascination with jazz.
Frisell decided to make guitar his primary instrument. After briefly attending the University of Northern Colorado, he moved to Boston in 1971 to attend the Berklee School of Music. There he studied with Michael Gibbs and John Damian. While at Berklee, Frisell connected with other like-minded players (Pat Metheny was a classmate). He also studied with Jim Hall, who became an important influence, especially in terms of harmony. In the mid-'70s, Frisell began moving away from pure bebop and began fusing jazz with his other musical interests. At about this time, he began developing his atmospheric, quasi-microtonal style. He discovered that, by using a guitar with a flexible neck, he could manipulate the instrument's intonation. A combination of experimental techniques and signal processors like delay and reverb gave Frisell a sound unlike any other guitarist.
In the late '70s, he traveled to Belgium. There he met Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records. Beginning in the early '80s, Frisell recorded prolifically for the label as leader and sideman, with such musicians as Paul Motian and Jan Garbarek. He continued with the label throughout the decade, earning a reputation as ECM's "house guitarist." Frisell became much acclaimed by critics for his sophisticated yet accessible work. He moved to New York in the '80s where he worked with many of the most creative musicians active on the city's "downtown" jazz scene.
In the '80s and '90s, he recorded and performed with a huge variety of artists, not all of them jazz musicians. Collaborators included rock and pop musicians (drummer Ginger Baker, singers Marianne Faithfull and Elvis Costello), experimental jazz musicians (saxophonist/composers John Zorn and Tim Berne), and at least one classical composer (Gavin Bryars). Frisell composed soundtracks for the silent films of Buster Keaton. His 1996 album, Quartet, won the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, the German equivalent of the Grammy. Frisell became an annual winner of various magazine polls for his solo work and recordings.
By the end of the '90s, Frisell was one of the most well-known jazz musicians in the world, with an audience and an aesthetic that transcended the boundaries of any given style. It should be mentioned that, while he is best known for his somewhat "ambient" guitar technique, he is a swinging, harmonically fluent jazz player when the occasion warrants. Frisell moved to Seattle, Washington in 1989 and stayed active as the 21st century opened, releasing Ghost Town in 2000, followed by a set with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones in 2001. Blues Dream also appeared that same year, followed by The Willies in 2002. East/West and Richter 858 were both released in 2005, and a set with Ron Carter and Paul Motian in 2006. History, Mystery followed in 2008.
In 2010, a trio recording entitled Beautiful Dreamers was released by Savoy Jazz. A collection of covers and originals, it featured Frisell in the company of violinist Eyvind Kang and drummer Roy Royston. Frisell also appeared as a sideman on Reveille, the debut solo offering from Kermit Driscoll, former bassist of the guitarist's earlier working trio. Abigail Washburn's 2011 album, City of Refuge, featured Frisell as lead guitarist. He kicked off his own series of releases in 2011 with Lagrimas Mexicanas, a series of duets with Brazilian guitarist and vocalist Vinicius Cantuária; the album was produced by Lee Townsend and released on the Entertainment on Disc/eOne imprint. Townsend also produced Frisell's return to Savoy Jazz, Sign of Life. That album featured a reunion of the 858 Quartet with Frisell on guitars, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Hank Roberts on cello.
In 2011, Frisell delved into the music of John Lennon with All We Are Saying.... A longtime fan of the Beatles singer/songwriter, Frisell was joined once again by violinist Scheinman, as well as guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen on such classics as "Across the Universe," "Imagine," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Julia," "Beautiful Boy," and others. Hewing closely to Lennon's original versions, Frisell found ways to explore the melody and emotional content of Lennon's songs without having to overtly change the harmonic content of the material. Frisell's 2012 also saw the return of Floratone -- his collective with Lee Townsend, Matt Chamberlain, and Tucker Martine. Floratone II was released on March 6, 2012. He also reestablished his connection with John Zorn's music, appearing as part of the ensemble for the composer's Gnostic Preludes with harpist Carol Emmanuel and Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone. The album was issued on Tzadik a week after Floratone II. He released another album for the label in early 2013. Entitled Silent Comedy, it featured the guitarist in a solo setting. Frisell the composer returned in a big way in June of that year, employing his 858 Quartet and drummer Rudy Royston. Together they recorded Big Sur, his debut for Sony's relaunched OKeh imprint. In 2013, Frisell appeared with his Gnostic Trio bandmates (harpist Carol Emmanuel and vibist/percussionist Kenny Wollesen) on John Zorn's In Lambeth: Visions from the Walled Garden of William Blake.
Frisell kicked off 2014 with an appearance on Scheinman's Sony Masterworks set The Littlest Prisoner, scored and recorded the soundtrack to Bill Morrison's documentary The Great Flood, and duetted with Greg Cohen on the bassist's Golden State album. Guitar in the Space Age!, Frisell's tribute to some of the guitar music of the late '50s and early '60s, was issued by OKeh in October. His next label offering was When You Wish Upon a Star, a tribute to film composers, television scores, and the musicians who played on them. Along with tributes to Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, among others, the set featured covers of the Disney tune in the title, the theme from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, and "The Shadow of Your Smile" from the motion picture score of The Sandpipers. Issued in early 2016, the recording hit number two on the jazz charts. Frisell appeared on ECM as a sideman for dates by pianist Stefano Bollani (Joy in Spite of Everything, 2014) and Andrew Cyrille (The Declaration of Musical Independence, 2016). He made his official return to the label as a (co)leader -- his first since 1988's Lookout for Hope -- in 2017 with Small Town, a live duo set cut live at the Village Vanguard with longtime friend and bassist Thomas Morgan. ~ Chris Kelsey & Thom Jurek