Bill Frisell in Conversation with Curator Philip Bither

Uploaded by walkerartcenter on 20.05.2010

Philip Bither: Hi. My name is Philip Bither. I'm the Senior Curator for Performing Arts
here at the Walker Arts Center.
We're lucky enough today to have Bill Frisell, guitarist, composer, band leader with us.
This is not your first time to the Walker. I think it's about your twentieth or something.
But on this occasion Bill is here with Eyvind Kang and with Rahim Alhaj. It's really rare
for us and I think even for you a little bit to be someplace for a week to work on new
music. And we are about three or four days into it. How is it going?
Bill Frisell: Fantastic. Like you said it's so rare. The first day we just started playing
we didn't have much of an idea. There was one song that we had played together...
Philip: A shortcut for one of Rahim's release that he's doing.
Bill: He's doing... I think it's for a benefit for Doctor's Without Borders.
Philip: That's right.
Bill: He's doing a CD with all these different people. That was more like a matter of minutes
or an hour.
Philip: You met in a studio for a short amount of time.
Bill: It was also enough to know that we can play together but we started with really no
material. I didn't know what would happen. It was just so nice to have the space without
the pressure where we could just play.
Yesterday there was a point where we sort of saw the whole picture of what the evening
could be. We're still in the midst of working on it but it just revealed itself that we
had enough material and we're feeling comfortable.
Philip: Are you each bringing some of your own compositions here together or are you
really working it out?
I should mention that Rahim is a very renown Iraqi oud player who comes from a very different
musical tradition than you come from. I know he's very respected in Middle Eastern music
circles. He's lived here in the states for a number of years now.
Has there been a learning process around the Iraqi maqams, musical structures?
Bill: It's just too late for me. Even if I start thinking about it I couldn't even try
to go there, but with Eyvind, he's been studying Persian music and there's a lot of the terminology
and some of the language is the same. For me Eyvind is sort of like a go between, or
a translator for us in a way if we're dealing in those terms.
Philip: When did you guys first meet? How did you...?
Bill: I first met him 25 years ago or more. He was a student in Canada, a volunteer. I
played in Edmonton and he picked us up at the airport. He was... I don't know how old
he was, 17 or 18, and I thought he was a cool guy. I didn't even know he played music. I
remember he said, "I think I'm going to move to Seattle." So then a couple of years later
I moved to Seattle. I don't know how it happened, but I saw him on the street, or something.
I said, oh yeah, that's that guy that I met in Edmonton, and one thing led to another.
We've had a long, long...
Philip: Now he's played in a number of different ensembles, you've done collaborations.
Bill: Just tons of stuff. So he's, for me, just the perfect person to make it comfortable
for us all to be. Rahim, he is just completely open, it's not like he's expecting me to follow
any of these rules, or tradition that he grew up with. The whole idea is we try to...
Philip: To follow.
Bill: Yeah. I just can't even begin to understand what's he's doing...
Philip: Structurally.
Bill: Yeah. With these maqams or the scales, and the way they fit together. I don't even
know how many years, centuries... It's just an overwhelming amount of stuff. Within that,
it's like, well OK, I have my ears, and since he's OK with me, it's all OK.
Philip: And he said over lunch the other day, that he too was interested in moving his forms
and his compositional approach toward yours... I mean, you meet halfway.
Bill: Yeah. After I arrived in Minneapolis, sometimes something will just happen, it just
seems like a random thing, but I was on my computer, and by accident I came across this
thing, a song on YouTube. Tt was a Pops Staples, from the Staples singers, just playing his
guitar. It's this old, old...
Philip: Old Blues song?
Bill: Yeah, kind of a Gospel Blues; Ain't nobody's fault but mine. Somehow, that song
just grabbed me at that moment, and I think it was the morning before the first time we
played together. So then I heard something in that song, and thought, yeah, the oud fits
in that key. So yesterday, Eyvind and I played that melody. In my head, I'm hearing, a lot
of people have done that song. Nina Simone has done it, and Blind Willie Johnson, Rosetta
Tharpe. It has this huge American history that goes way back. And I'm hearing that,
and we're playing that, and Rahim is reacting to it.
Philip: It's that process of opening yourself up to a brand new style of music, or a new
collaborator. More exciting or more fear inducing? One of the adjectives that sometimes people
regularly use in writing about your history as a musician is fearless. And in our projects
together, I've always admired how you are willing to throw yourself off the deep end,
into the void.
And it seems that it always results in something quite magical. Have you grown to a point now,
over your history, where you trust yourself, you trust the people that you've gotten to
know personally enough, that you figure something interesting is going to work out.
Bill: Yeah, there's definitely, there's a base of trust and confidence that I've slowly
built up. But, I certainly wouldn't call it fearless. Because I definitely have those
moments of complete panic. Not this one, I don't feel it's somehow lower stress. I don't
feel that...
Philip: Yeah.
Bill: I don't know why, but I was thinking of some of the other projects that I've done,
actually, for the first time, at the Walker. Where they really were the... It was like,
maybe music that I was composing and it really was the first time.
Philip: Yeah, when Blue's Dreams, when you put those two groups together. That was so
exciting. And it went beautifully.
Bill: But when I think of, still, you know, there I was more in some turmoil, and but
it's the only way to do it. You have to have that first moment of not knowing what's going
happen. And, but that was... Having that chance to do it here, and then we... You know, you
do it once, and then...
Philip: Keep working on it.
Bill: You learn a lot. [laughter] From just that, you know, do one gig and then it's,
"OK, now..."
Philip: And I think that project, which was a Walker commission like this one happening
tomorrow night, was one that really, then it didn't really come out as a record for
about a year and a half or so, but now as we look back, I mean, I think, I don't know
if you agree, but a lot of people who write about your whole discography and look at it
as a wonderful recording, and you just put it out as a DVD, I think. A live version,
or someone did.
Bill: Oh yeah, there was a live concert with mostly that music from that.
Philip: I remember you, us talking before that project. And you had said, "Well, I've
worked with these folks in this kind of trio or quartet capacity. And I've used horns in
these other areas, but I haven't... And worked with these other artists in this way, but
I really dream of bringing all seven musicians together and creating a new series of compositions
for this kind of ensemble.
Bill: Right. That's what... That was one of those... Sometimes in whatever I'm looking
for in the music, I'll go off on these not side roads, but if you want to figure something
out, you've got to go off in these for a while.
But that project, I felt like it was a where the roads... There was a number of roads kind
of came back into the... Like, I felt like it was really like I was home or something
like that.
Philip: You know, when I watch you perform, and one of the really riveting parts is to
see you in the process of, really, creation before our eyes. And it's a wonderful thing
to see as you're pushing a piece of music forward, and trying new things, and it feels
like a kind of venturing forth before us.
And I read somewhere that, you know, someone asked what happens if you're improvising within
a structure, and you play something that you really don't care for, and wish you could
take back. And you said, really, that's not it so much as you then... It's about the recovery.
And you turn it into a plus rather than something you regretted. It's maybe that mistake will
result in something even more interesting. Is that accurate?
Bill: Yeah, yeah. For sure. And that's how you... There's a Leonard Cohen... I don't
know if it's in a song, or if it that I heard Leonard Cohen say... And he was referring
to making mistakes. But he said, "A crack is what lets the light come in." And, I mean,
that's so... whether it's been overused, I don't care.
Philip: Yeah, that's great. I hadn't heard it before.
Bill: I mean, in music, it definitely.. those are the, you know, work so hard to get everything
right, and then but so many things, I've probably learned more from the mistakes.
You grab something on the guitar that's in the wrong spot. And if you're there and you're
hearing it, it's like you know, you can surprise yourself. And it's like, wow, that actually
sounds cool. And then you do it again. And you really... I don't know. That's a great
way of learning.
Philip: And that must come back to this idea of being surrounded by trusted colleagues.
Bill: Well, yeah. You have to be able to be comfortable where it's OK to make mistakes.
And where everybody's not keeping some kind of score, or something.
Philip: Right, or thrown off in some way.
Bill: Yeah, or people who are forgiving. Everybody that I play with is, you know, if somebody,
if things get turned around, or whatever. It's not about pointing that out. It's about
everybody trying to make something out of it together.
Philip: You know, when we think about your music, one of the wonderful things is how
eclectic, and how curious you've been. And how eclectic the range of styles, or types
of music that you've entered into.
Do you consciously think about, oh, I'd love to explore bluegrass music or this kind of
experimental sound a bit more. Or write for strings, or do you just naturally find you're
hearing things, and you're absorbing things, and your music just starts to take different
shape, by the influences that you've had. Or things bubble up, from your history, that
you didn't expect to be there.
Bill: If you're in the world of music, you're just constantly being hit with things. It
just seems natural to, wow, there's so much amazing stuff. And it just seems natural to
me to grab onto them.
Also, the whole thing about the names that we put on, and this style, genre, and this,
that. It's just... It doesn't really... When you're in the midst of the music, none of
those things... You're not thinking about any of those names, or whether it's jazz,
or rock, or country, or bluegrass, or whatever. It's just... All those things come later.
The words that describe it. It always comes after the actual act of making the music.
Philip: Now, I think that's the universal thing in my conversations with musicians.
Has always been a resistance to the labels that writers or curators or whomever place
on things. And so many artists have said it's just about music.
And I wondered about the jazz tradition. There's a lot of fear around is jazz, for a decade
or more, is there a future for the music of jazz? Is it a definable form? Or is it more
of a straight- jacket term?
A number of musicians that I talk to, jazz artists. Or artists who play what might be
called jazz resist the term entirely. "Don't call me a jazz musician." I've noticed you've
said, in the past, that whatever style of music you're playing in, you still consider
yourself a jazz... You're playing from a jazz orientation, or from a jazz position.
Philip: Yeah, I mean that's...
Bill: You seem to not resist, reject completely the label as much as maybe others.
Philip: For me that was... And I still don't even know exactly what it... If you ask me
to define what it is. But it was growing up, you know? I grew up in the 50's, and by the
60's I was playing music. I played in the school band...
Bill: You played clarinet.
Philip: Yeah, and then started... you know, it's all... it's such a classic. There's thousands,
or millions, of the same story. You know, I heard the Beatles on Ed Sullivan Show, and
pretty soon I had an electric guitar, and it's just...
Bill: I heard your first record purchase was "Surfer Girl" by Vertical Horizon. Mine, I
think, was "P.S., I love You."
Philip: Yeah, I mean it's nothing unusual, but there was a point when I found jazz, and
it seemed like at that time... This was sort of maybe in the... It was in the late 60's.
And one thing lead to another, and I started hearing what Felonious Monk and Sonny Rollins
and Charlie Parker... And then there was this world of these... I was in Denver, Colorado,
and there was this community of this open, welcoming thing that happened that just...
It was the most amazing thing, both in music, like there was this open...
For me, jazz, it was about people taking their experience and transforming it through this...
Whatever was in their wildest imagination and when I listened to Charlie Parker or Sonny
Rollins or Monk, I hear... I'm not hearing a style, I'm hearing a... I'm not hearing
something that you... I don't even know how to say it. You know, they used... Charlie
Parker was listening to Stravinsky and he was listening to Hank Williams, and I can
hear that...
Bill: And they're playing their own versions of show tunes...
Philip: Yeah, and they would play popular music, and it would filter through them, and
it was a way for them to just... It was like this kaleidoscope of imagination. It would
take whatever was around them and it was like this explosion.
Bill: That's a great way to think about it, because in some ways, some people look at
jazz history back more like that... Say bebop had a sort of rigid, certain rules and things...
But now people are really open to all different kinds of styles and things, but in reality
what you're saying, and I think is a really good point, is that at that moment in time
people were, maybe equally, if not really open also to a lot of different influences,
sounds.... Sonny Rollins listening to a lot of Afro-Cuban music or Dizzy, and, you know,
just absorbing, the same way musicians like yourself are absorbing a diverse range...
Philip: I mean, for me, that was the example that they were setting for me, and then also,
the community of those musicians... I'm just thinking back at that time... The whole social
interaction with the racial thing or... It just didn't matter. You know, economically,
whatever it was just... You go into this... I'd go into some bar and I'm like listening
to the drummer. You know, I'm like 17 or 18, and I'm listening to his symbol. And then
somebody else would ask, "Well, do you want to come up and play?" And it was like this
cool just fantastic world. And that's what I think jazz is for me.
So I don't have any, I just don't like when you say jazz is this and not that. Whenever
it excludes something, for me it was also the place where from the training that I had.
In playing more in the school band and orchestra where things were you know there was jazz
was the place where you could wow. You know, you could try anything. You could break these
rules and no one got hurt. You know that's what's so, in music you can do these things
that, you can be aggressive or dissident or consistent. It's just anything is possible
and it's not a, it doesn't do anything but good as far as I can see.
Bill: Which is interesting. Great backers of jazz say that's one of the great statements
of American freedom. And why it's been so adapted, and so many countries all over the
world have this sense of just freedom of being able to take the music where you want it to
go and things. You know, all great, many, most of the great jazz musicians have their
sound and have a very signature quality. Whether its Miles or Charlie Parker or whomever. And
you certainly have, ever since the first, I think the first time I ever heard you play
was, my brother gave me a record of Hal Wilner produced Nina Rota...
Philip: That's like the first, actually maybe the first recording I ever did, under my own.
Bill: Under your name, right. And it was a beautiful piece but and really your sound
was so distinctive. And to this day, you hear a few notes of your playing and you know its
you. And I know. Was that something that you came to naturally? Or, I think it's funny,
when I was online recently and there's a twenty page discussion on guitar player website or
something about guys trying to get the right compression pedals to get the Frisell sound
and things like that. I wondered how you developed you voice and whether this was something conscious
or just a sound you got out of the guitar that you decided you liked and you wanted
to continue to perfect.
Philip: Yeah, I mean it's just, I think it's just something you can't help. I think everyone
has their own sound and it comes so much of it comes from our inability to actually my
whole and I think that it's just true with music. When you begin the very first time
you try to make a sound and your, you know when I was, however old I was, your always
hearing something that's just beyond your grasp. Like, the first time I touched a guitar
it was like thinking, you know there's something in my mind that I'm trying to reach. You,
oh, no that's not it and you just, it's just it's constant, it feels the same now everyday
when I start out.
Every moment is like that. Your just never there, there's something further out within
your imagination. And I think a lot of the sounds are individual sounds just come more
from our limitations maybe then. Like, there's this story about Miles Davis, again, in the
jazz world, saying he couldn't play as Dizzy Gillespie. So he played low or something.
And I'm thinking, well, what if... And for me, you know, Miles Davis is one of the most
beautiful sounds in the universe. And I'm thinking, well, if he could have played exactly
like Dizzy Gillespie then we wouldn't of had a Miles Davis, or something.
So it's... I mean, even somebody on that genius level, that came from something that he couldn't
do. And so many things I do are I'm just implying things that I'm imagining in my head. I mean,
there's guitar players that I love. Like John McLaughlin or Tal Farlow, I mean, there's
a million guitar players that I could sort of hear in my head, but I just can't get it.
So, but I'm just going, "OK, I'm gonna just get as close as I can.' And I think there's
something in that struggle that that's what the sound is.
And then you also mentioned the thing about people mention my pedals and the equipment,
and I think that's got so little to do with it.
Philip: People get hung up on that technology side.
Bill: And the thing in your imagination is so much more important than what the actual
instrument is.
Philip: Although, the effects you use, and the age we live in where music can be produced
using some very interesting technology and elements. It's very different than the era
when you could hand someone a written score, and say this is my music. How do you equate
your process of writing music to, say, a more classical tradition, where maybe a composer
goes and sits by themselves, or with a piano and really writes down their composition in
that way. In many ways, a studio and your collaboration with musicians are kind of part
of your composition process, right?
Bill: Yeah, I think about that a lot. Because recently I've actually written a couple of
things where I've just written the music, and then I give it away to somebody else,
Philip: How's it sound, when you hear it?
Bill: It's OK, but I have to say, I really... There's this thing that happens when I'm with...
I do rely on the people I'm with to add this little extra rub or something.
I've actually been struggling with this a little bit. How to maybe notate things more
precisely, or add another layer of some sort of something that I can... That there is a
way to just hand this over to someone, and have it be fully formed.
Because for me, again, the music is so much about the chemistry between the people. And
I'm so lucky to have this pretty large circle of people that I play with, that we don't
have to really talk about anything. We just sort of have an understanding. And I can write
a score looks... You know, it's...
Philip: Notes on a page.
Bill: Yeah, like a four-part thing, or whatever it is. That I could give it to a string quartet,
and they could play it or something. But, when I'm with my guys, I don't... Just all
these other things happen. I count on them to bring...
Philip: Well, and maybe it's something about that music is in such a different point in
our history. I know Eno would talk about the studio as really the new instrument, in some
way. You're maybe both referencing that, but also talking about the community of musicians.
And that dates back probably ages. But certainly in earlier eras of jazz, when Ellington would
count on Johnny Hodges, or whatever. And people would have groups of musicians that they would
come to trust, to create their sound. But then that does mean it's different than what's
just on the page. Those two things remain separate, somewhat.
Bill: Yeah. I don't know. I'm trying to figure out how to... I just heard my friend Don Byron,
who also I played at the Walker with.
Philip: Yes, you did.
Bill: And he wrote some music for piano. He wrote these Etudes for piano. And I just was
listening to this, and he really succeeded. I listened to it and it was like this is Don.
It sounds like...
Philip: You could hear Byron's sound?
Bill: Totally, yeah. And it was amazing, because it had all the stuff, you know? That he would...
When you hear his groups and you can hear how his imagination and his organization,
and un-organization and everything.
Philip: He was able to write that into the Etudes.
Bill: Yeah, somehow he really got it. And that was his... he said that's what he was
trying, what he really wanted to notate it. And someone played it, and it was his thing.
I've been thinking about that a lot. It's... I hope I can get to that at some point.
Philip: This notion of communities. It's one of things that I've also admired about. You've
seemed, throughout your career, to surround yourself with groups of artists who you build
really long-lasting bonds with. But they flow in and out of your different recordings, and
your different touring bands. In some ways, they seem to be at three different levels.
Some are legends who you have admired as a young person. I mean, your trios with Paul
Motion, Ron Carter, and the trio with Paul Motion and Joe Levano, and things. And then
others are peer level.
But there's also a group of younger players who, it seems, and Aven may have been part
of that. But Jenny Shineman, and others in the Seattle scene. Who you've really brought,
in many ways, to the public's attention. Or at least to mine. I was introduced to their
music. Some have gone on and continued to do their own things, and stuff.
Do you seek out players who you feel, sometimes, deserve a greater visibility? And you're intrigued
by their approach, but by having them join you you can not only build that community,
but you can also help focus some attention on these talents that haven't been recognized
as much?
Bill: I mean, I'm not really thinking about that at all. It's just, again, it's in the
world, and I'll hear somebody, I just want to play with them.
Philip: You'll hear them at a club, or on a record, or something like that?
Bill: Or we meet. There's always somebody that I want to just... It's more like I want
to learn from them. I'm not trying to...
Philip: Do anything for them, or...
Bill: It's total selfish, you know. I'm just looking to learn something from them. Yeah.
I've just been... I feel so lucky. Being in this, whatever is going on with this.
Philip: Well, I think it's your openness to hearing new things and new folks. Something
like you said, I think it was a year or two ago, when you had just met Rahim, and you
said, Oh, I'd like to do something with that guy, and it takes sometimes a little while.
Bill: Yeah, it's took a while.
Philip: But then, there's a place to then explore that a bit more. Is that how a number
of your collaborations, or will you pick up the phone and say, hey, why don't you join
me on a date some place, or a live performance, is that how you introduce new people into
your groups and things like that?
Bill: It happens differently. Sometimes it can happen fast, or sometimes it takes a while.
Like with Rahim, I met him - I don't even know, years ago, we met and kept talking about
trying to do something, and then it just gradually; this was our chance. But sometimes, I don't
know, it could just be an accident, I'm trying to think of an example, somebody gets sick
and I need to get somebody else. There's always a bunch of people floating around, there's
a lot of people out there now that I'd like to play with more!
Philip: [laughter] With your busy life, how do you find the opportunities to hear new
things, do you hear things online, do people send you things? Where do you find your inspiration?
Bill: That's hard. Also, its really difficult for me to listen to music. When I think of
years ago, sitting around and listening to a whole album in one sitting, that just doesn't
happen, hardly at all anymore. People do send me stuff, and I've got piles of stuff at home
that I feel so guilty, because I haven't been able to hear it.
Philip: I know that feeling.
Bill: And now, everybody makes a CD. Anybody can make a CD, so there's just mountains of
this stuff. I just can't hear it. A lot of times it's actually not even hearing, a lot
of people I play with, I sort of knew that I wanted to play with even before I heard
Philip: Because of what you sensed?
Bill: Yeah, you met them. Even Eyvind, when I met him, before I even knew what instrument
he played, there's this something going on, or Greg Leisz, whose on that Blues Dream album,
when we met, and we met at the Walker Arts Center.
Philip: Yeah, you told me that. I can't remember what project.
Bill: I was playing with Viktor Krauss and Jerry Douglas, and Greg came to hear us.
Philip: Wasn't it when we did the National project?
Bill: Yeah.
Philip: Yeah, that's right.
Bill: Oh wow. He was friends with Claudia Engelhart, who does sound with me, and she
said, this is my friend Greg. So we just talked.
Philip: And he was in town for something else?
Bill: Yeah, he was playing with K D Lang or something. So then I called him on the phone
sometime later, and asked him to play on the album. So maybe that was quicker.
Philip: You, like several other musicians, I mean with Greg, you really forged an interesting
bond, and I know you felt like you had this yin yang relationship, in that he really grew
up through in becoming a master in Country and Bluegrass music and things, and you went
the Jazz route, but you kind of complimented each other.
Bill: Yeah.
Philip: And that he really grew up through becoming a master in country and bluegrass
music and things, and you went the jazz route, but you kind of complemented each other.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, and I just feel like we're some brothers who were separated at birth
or something. But we really, we're close to the same age, and our birthdays are exactly
six months apart. He's left handed and I'm right handed. But it's just like he's... We
grew up with all the same stuff, with The Beach Boys, and The Beatles, and Paul Butterfield
and all this, whatever...
Philip: Yeah, sure.
Bill: We all, it's just like bam bam bam, and then there was that point where I... I
don't know. I heard Wes Montgomery and he heard Hank Williams or something.
Philip: Right, sure.
Bill: And then we sort of came back.
Philip: One of many very special memories and moments at The Walker was when we built
this new theater.
Bill: Oh yeah.
Philip: And it opened in April of 2005, and we invited 12 artists from around the world
to come in the same day, and to share the celebration, and you were good enough and
very generous. You and Greg came, and did several short sets with us.
Bill: Yeah, that was really nice.
Philip: And it was just beautiful, hearing you guys, just together, and really inaugurating
musically, sonically, this space.
Bill: That was great and that was the first time I saw this room.
Philip: Yeah. You know, when you mentioned Hank Williams, it reminded me of your beautiful
choice of cover songs, and how you'll weave into many concerts a song or two that suddenly
connects people to a certain point in pop history.
You kind of have your own very personal stamp on it. Are these the songs, like Marvin Gaye's,
"What's Going On?" or Hank Williams', "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, " are they just songs
that have been important to you? You just mentioned you saw Pops Staples doing that
song, the blues song and you just decided, "Oh, maybe this is something." Is that how
it happened?
Bill: That happened that way, like sometimes it's like that where... And I didn't realize
that I'd heard that song a bunch of times, but I didn't even recognize it as the same
song. This Pop Staples thing, I heard it, and it was just this amazing sound, and then
I realized that it was also on a Blind Willie Johnson record that I have, but it's a completely
different... It sounds completely different.
Sometimes these things will come up out of... Like, Greg and I will play "Surfer Girl,
" which is the first actual '45 record that I've bought. So there's stuff like that, I'll
dig it up out of my past.
Philip: Yeah.
Bill: Just songs that... A Marvin Gaye song that I played in high school or something.
Philip: Yeah.
Bill: But then there's that, like just the other day, that was sort of sudden... Or today
there was in a coffee shop, "You've really got a hold on me."
Philip: Yeah, the Smokey Robinson.
Bill: I've always, I haven't ever really played that, and I've got to play that, and it just
happens in these sort of weird, random...
Philip: And you did that recording, which was all kind of, "Have a Little Faith, "
title was from the John Hiatt song, but it was a lot of different styles.
Bill: Yeah, and a lot of that music, it came from know from some of it
from old, my own memories, and then some of it was almost like trying to pay tribute to
a I played a Sonny Rollins song, and that song didn't come from so much
a memory as thinking about Sonny Rollins himself, or Charles Ives, or Aaron Copland. It was
trying to...also that album was where I was trying to... Prior to that, I'd been concerned
with just only playing my own, original music. I never really played many, hardly any at
all, cover songs. I don't know if that's selling out. But it was like I was trying to...
Philip: Not really, because each of those songs were like Bill Frisell songs, by the
Bill: But, I mean, it was a conscious decision: OK, it's going to be all cover songs. I was
trying to communicate, like show something of the world [laughs] that I had come from.
Philip: Right.
Bill: I don't know if that's a low level of commercial...
Philip: I don't think so. Also, I remember some moments in your concerts where you've
used music. Maybe not used it, but it seems that a choice of a song relates to a point
in where the world is, and that we've just entered into the war with Iraq, or that there's
really stresses, as there almost always are in the world. But I remember hearing, the
first time, I think you were doing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" Or when you've played
Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" or "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." It feels like it's a soft way
of commenting on your concern around what's going on in the world. Is that right?
Bill: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that music, throughout my life, those are the things that somehow--I
don't know if comfort is the right word, but...
Philip: Address.
Bill: Yeah. Just those songs, when we're in those situations, somehow they help me. They
keep on being so relevant. Or you hear them again, and it's like you hear the same words,
like whatever.
Philip: Right.
Bill: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" or whatever, Pete Seeger. All these songs, they
just keep on being relevant.
Philip: Unfortunately. [laughs]
Bill: Yeah. But then they're beautiful, too. I don't know.
Philip: There's a few moments, other than things we've talked about, about past projects
at the Walker that I wanted to ask you about. Back in '86, your first performance here was
a collaboration with Jim Hall, who you had studied with a little bit.
Bill: Yeah.
Philip: And I read that you've just released, fairly recently, another duo record together.
Bill: Yeah. Actually, when we played here was the very first time. It was soon after
I got out of high school, I met him. It was like 1970, I met him, through another teacher
in Denver. And then I was lucky enough to be able to study with him. I took like eight
lessons with him in New York.
Philip: What was it about his playing that attracted you?
Bill: Well, he was one of the... This was at this moment when it was like this just
big explosion in my mind, discovering jazz. Again, that word, but I don't know how else
Philip: Yeah.
Bill: Jazz music. And it was within just months, I heard Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and
Monk and Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery, just all these people, suddenly. And it was like,
literally, my mind was being blown. And he was kind of right at the center of what the
guitar could be in there.
Philip: Because of his innovative approach to harmonics? Or...
Bill: Yeah, and it wasn't even so much the guitar itself, it's the function that he had
amongst the people that he played with that was so impressive to me. That he was playing
with Sunny Long's group, or he was playing with Art Farmer, or Bill Evans. It showed
me how the guitar could... He was like an orchestrator or whatever.
Philip: Right.
Bill: It wasn't just like some showoff. I mean, he played amazing. People say, "Oh,
he doesn't play fast, " or this or that, but that's completely irrelevant. It's more...his
role in the whole group around him.
Philip: Right.
Bill: That sort of just set an example for what, maybe I could do. And so then I was
lucky enough to get to study with him, I couldn't believe it. You know, like, "Wow." I actually
met him. He's like this larger-than-life guy, and he turns out to be this super nice guy,
and made me feel comfortable, and gave me confidence.
And this is in 1972 when I took the lessons. Then, about 10 years later, I was living in
New York, and I hadn't really been in touch with him. It was quite a number of years later,
and I was in New York, and I was walking down the street in his neighborhood, and he was
walking down the street, and I ran into him. And I said, "Excuse Me Mr. Hall?" You know,
"Oh Bill!" and he totally remembered me and was just super friendly and blah-blah-blah.
And then maybe another year after that I did my first recording on ECM, and I sent him
that. He was still living in the same apartment that he was. He still is now. So then, it
was suddenly like all this time had gone by and he immediately called me and said, "Wow."
He was really impressed with what I'd done. He said, "You were taking lessons from me,
and now I want to take lessons from you." [laughter] "Now I can learn from you." It
was just incredible, the way he's just such a generous person.
So, then it was like, "Wow, I wonder if we could actually play together or something."
You know, I never would have dreamed that.
Philip: Right, sure.
Bill: The first time I actually played with him in public was at the Walker in... Was
it '86?
Philip: '86. Yeah. Which was... Do you remember that date at all?
Bill: Yeah, yeah. It was just an amazing... I don't know, it just was beautiful. Again,
him as a person, he's just been such an inspiration. One of the things I remember, I don't know
if this is relevant at all. But for me it was such an intense experience, just playing
the music with him and being on the stage with him.
We played together, and then we finished the concert and we went off the... Again, it was
another sort of a lesson for me. We went off the stage into the dressing room, and I was
just so high off the music and just so into that moment. We go into the dressing room,
and there's just like this massive... I mean, maybe it wasn't that many, but it seemed like
a lot of people. My first reaction with these people would have been, "Man! Get out! Leave
us alone! Can't you see that we just did this amazing thing? And we need to have some..."
Philip: Downtime.
Bill: Because we need to be together and congratulate ourselves, and all this. I was really kind
of pissed off that there was this mob of people. And he just, he was so... It was just like
a little lesson. It's not over yet. You've still gotta. And he just... He greeted all
these people with just... And he was probably warn out and whatever else. But, it was like
the gig wasn't quite over yet. He talked to each one of them.
Philip: Wow.
Bill: In a real gracious way. And that helped me, a little bit, too. I mean, it's kind of
an aside.
Philip: Around that time, three different times you then came back in various projects
that John Zorn was developing.
Bill: Oh, yeah.
Philip: The Spulane Godard piece. And that was around the time when we first worked together.
When I was still at Bam.
Bill: Oh yeah!
Philip: And we did that big... Zorn did the big project about Morricone.
Bill: Oh yeah! Yeah.
Philip: And it was still a very memorable night, but it was completely overkill project,
but, the guitarists were Jody Harris and Robert Quine, and Ardo, and yourself.
Bill: Yeah.
Philip: Along with 25 other musicians playing Morricone's music.
Bill: Somewhere I saw a picture of that. I wish I had that. Of all the guitarists together.
It was like, it was a far out guitar section.
Philip: And then you came back with your own band several times. You played with Naked
City. But the start of doing these more cross- disciplinary projects was really with the
Buster Keaton films. That we, I think we presented not at the Walker, but with Northrup. Across
at the University.
Bill: Oh, OK.
Philip: And you started to explore some of these collaborations with film and other art
forms. I think of that now having just a few years back supported the Disfarmer project.
What attracts you to sometimes combining your music with other media forms, or creating
it into a different context that somewhat is more theatrical, and things like that?
Bill: I mean, I really... It's important for me to write music and generate ideas somehow.
What I really love is just sitting alone, and in addition to playing with my friends.
But, I mean, I love just the act of... It's sort of like drawing, or something. It's almost...
I have a lot of cartoonist friends, or artists friends. It's something about just writing
music with no... It's just sort of like sketching.
Philip: So you do enjoy just, with music, just writing music in note form. Without a
Bill: I remember, a lot of times it's with the guitar. But also without the guitar. And
it's just sort sort of letting my... It's an amazing feeling when your imagination starts
to go, and the thing starts to just come out, and you let it come out. I love that. But,
what I was going to say about if there's something, like a film...
Philip: These still photographs?
Bill: Something, like a picture. That it has a way of kind of restricting you, in a way. It boxes you in.
Like, if it's a film, you have deal with time.
Philip: And the action, or whatever?
Bill: Yeah, it's confining in a way. But then, within the confines, I find that it helps
me to sometimes generate things that I wouldn't... I'm saying, I love to just go off and let
my imagination run wild, but sometimes that other thing will help me come up with things
that I wouldn't think of when I'm just left completely free. So for me that is the most
attractive thing about film or writing or being inspired by paintings or pictures, just
that it will get me to another place or somehow it will inspire me. Just that one little extra
looking at a picture or something, something might happen that wouldn't happen otherwise.
Philip: I think you guys had the chance to wander a little bit through the galleries
yesterday. One of the nice things about having our setup is having a visual art gallery right
next door where artists can just take a break and wander in and look at the contemporary
art collection or exhibitions traveling through.
Bill: Yeah, that was great to get to do that.
Philip: You mentioned film and sometimes photographs, are there other art forms that inspire you
at times, or that you seek out?
Bill: Painting, my wife is a Painter.
Philip: Oh, is she?
Bill: I have friends that paint and draw.
Philip: Jim Woodring is the cartoonist.
Bill: There's a friend that is actually the age my parents would be if they were still
alive. He was the first person that... he's Charles Cajori, he's a painter in New York,
this is way out... is it OK if I talk about this?
Philip: Yeah, sure!
Bill: When I was young, my father worked with his father at the Colorado Medical School.
He was the age that my father is, so right now he's 89 years old, he's still healthy
and he's still painting. We would have these dinners at my house when I was a kid, and
whenever he would come from NY to Denver he'd visit and my father and his father would be
talking about some sort of incomprehensible scientific stuff, I didn't know what they
were talking about.
Philip: Your father was a scientist?
Bill: Yeah, he was a biochemist. This guy though was a beatnik painter guy from New
York, and I was like a young teenage. And I would hang out with him. And he was like
"You ever heard of Thelonious Monk?". I remember seeing this Monk record that he had and he
talked about going to the village Vanguard, and he told me about all this hip cool New
York stuff. I didn't have any idea what it was, but he was actually the first guy who
talked about Monk to me way before I knew what it was.
Then years and years later I just had a vague memory of this guy, about maybe ten years
ago, not even that long ago, thanks to the Internet, I looked him up. I said, "I wonder
what that guy...?" I knew he was a painter, and he was in New York, so I look on the Internet
and it was like, bam, all this stuff came out. So lets see... Whats it called? The New
York... I know its on eighth street in the village, its not the New York Studio School...
He was one of the guys that started this New York Studio School, and he was friends with
De Kooning. I didn't realize what all he was involved in. But I found his name on the Internet
and he was still teaching at the school on Eighth Street. I just thought "This is crazy,"
that I'll just write a letter. I just wrote a letter and I brought it to the front desk
at the school and I said, "Is Charles...?" And they said, "He teaches here one day a
week and I'll give him the note." I just left it there and then somehow it got to him and
he said, "I had no idea that..."
I said, "I don't think they'll remember me but." He actually knew who I was because he
had come to see me at the Vanguard with Paul Motion, and blah, blah, blah. But he didn't
connect that I was the son of blah, blah, blah. I'm talking like 40 more years before.
So then I met him and he was... I'm going way off the subject, I just have to tell you.
All the painters that he was associated with starting in the early 50's.
Philip: Abstract expressionists.
Bill: Yes. My wife was with me and we were sitting in Washington Square Park and he's
talking about crossing the street with De Kooning and... I forget all the guys. And
the places he lived. I guess there's a picture of Monk when Monk played at the Five Spot
with Coltrane. In one of the pictures right behind him it says, Cajori, which was his
first solo show. So he was there every night when Monk was playing at the Five Spot.
He was friends with Morton Feldman, and all these guys were all hanging out.
Philip: So he kind of introduced you to that other world.
Bill: Yes. When we were sitting in Washington Square Park he said, "After all this time
the one thing I'm certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor." It's just a simple
thing, but there's something about that human impulse to do that that I really relate to.
Like just as a kid I would draw monsters and hot rods, and it's somehow it's connected
a lot to the music.
Philip: That simple pleasure of just making something.
Bill: Yes. And it's something that not everybody can or does, but there's something important
about it.
Philip: It ties us very much back to, what made you the musician that you are, and sort
of expect how these influences in life lead to a creative body of work, that this guy
happened to visit a friend of your dad's and things like that and introduce you to Monk
and that kind of thing.
Bill: It's such a random...
Philip: Yeah, it also ties to our role here at the Walker as an art center. And how these
disciplines do have a relationship to one another. And how, through it's history and
creative music, painters and sculptors and filmmakers had a direct relationship personally,
with creative music and those lines lived together and...
Bill: Yeah, yeah and they would hang out with each other and talk about stuff.
Philip: Well, is there any other last things that you'd like to, that you wished I'd asked
you or that you'd like to add about your project here which is called Baghdad/ Seattle Suite
and premiers tomorrow night, the world premier and then goes on to Albuquerque, New Mexico
at Outpost. Anything else that you'd like to mention?
Bill: Again this place, for me has been one of these, I don't know what the right word,
it's not like an oasis, is that the right word? When I think of, even as we were talking
I was, like I actually met Greg Leisz at the Walker Art Center for the very first time.
I mean not just the gigs...
Philip: Yeah.
Bill: But the other, just things that have happened. Then when Greg and I played...
Philip: For the grand opening...
Bill: For the grand opening I saw Chuck Helm was here.
Philip: Yeah, Chuck came all right.
Bill: And then we started talking about the Disfarmer thing and...
Philip: Yeah.
Bill: That was sort of what we got that...
Philip: Right.
Bill: Going...
Philip: And then Chuck and I we joined in together to help support it.
Bill: Yeah. I mean there's just so many important moments in my, I mean I just want to thank
you really big time for, I mean I've said that before but it's, I think, the very first,
when I first started to do my own music, taking these little baby steps and being unsure of
what I was doing in the 80's or whatever else and I was living in New York and I planned
a little bar somewhere, maybe but this was and then I go to Europe. I mean Europe has
been a place where things can happen.
Philip: Right.
Bill: But in this country, this is a pretty, it's not pretty rare, it's like, it's very
rare and I've just had so many, the beginnings of so many things have happened here it's
just... So anyway, thank you for that.
Philip: Yeah, well it's been, of course, our great pleasure and I think it's one of the
things the Walker tries to do. And it is really one of the things that is so exciting about
being here is that it's just not about introducing new artists or maintaining relationships with
mid-career artists. But really, with people like yourself and artists like Trisha Brown
and Merce Cunningham and Ornette Coleman and others, it's about really sustaining a body
of work over a period of time.
Bill: That's the other thing too, it's not, there are places that they want to have the
latest cool thing and you do that if you happen to be in that moment and then they're on to
the next but there is this continuity that can happen over...
Philip: Over decades.
Bill: Yeah, now it's frightening, yeah. Think how long it has been.
Philip: Well, Bill I so look forward to tomorrow night, and it's a pleasure to have you here
for the week.
Bill: Thanks so much.
Philip: Thank you, thanks a lot.