Emma Franz’s loose and personable Bill Frisell: A Portrait captures the clean-cut, restlessly inventive guitarist in live performance in a variety of ensembles.
Emma Franz’s loose and personable Bill Frisell: A Portrait captures the clean-cut, restlessly inventive guitarist in live performance in a variety of ensembles.
Courtesy of Emma Franz

Guitarist Bill Frisell Learns by Forgetting

It’s important for Bill Frisell to forget.

In regard to approach and genre, openness has always defined the guitarist’s work. Since his start in the early ’80s as Manfred Eicher’s in-house player for the modern jazz/classical label ECM, to his stint with maverick composer John Zorn’s metal/jazz combo Naked City, his decades-spanning efforts with drummer Paul Motian, and session work with songwriters Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, and dozens more high-profile names, Frisell has brought concentrated grace to recordings, blending jazz, country, avant-garde, and roots music with collaborators and in his own vast discography.

People call Frisell when they need something moving for a session, so it’s easy to assume he spends a lot of time remembering, cataloging resonant tones, moves, and licks. And while it’s likely he does, Frisell says the key to making music is letting go. His best trick? Not getting hung up on what worked once and might again.
“It’s weird with music,” Frisell says, speaking via Skype from London, where he’s on tour with bassist Thomas Morgan. “One night you’ll play and something good will happen, and then it’s really important to forget that that happened.”

In our current social media-boosted digital landscape, “mindfulness” is having a moment. It’s the sort of thing you subscribe to meditation podcasts and practice breathing exercises to achieve. But it’s also the most appropriate word for describing how Frisell’s music functions. When it’s all working, Frisell doesn’t consider what’s happening. He lets it happen.

“The good things that happen come out of thin air,” Frisell says. “Sometimes, my hand will go to the wrong spot, and if I don’t panic, if I just listen to what’s happening, it’s like ‘Wow, I never would have thought about doing that.’”

That same experiential spirit hovers over Emma Franz’s recent documentary, Bill Frisell: A Portrait. Eschewing a strict narrative, the film wanders through Frisell’s career, presenting thoughtful interviews, recorded surrounded by guitars at his home in Seattle, and frequently cuts to onstage collaborations with Motian, his trio with drummer Kenny Wollesen, and bassist Tony Scherr, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s in conjunction with others that Frisell feels the most free, which makes his latest, Music IS, a career-spanning set of solo guitar pieces, a bit of an outlier.

“Playing the guitar, from the very beginning, was always about playing with other people,” Frisell says.
He describes early attempts at playing solo as “horrendously traumatic,” but eventually, the process came to represent a welcome challenge. He’s made a couple of albums in the fashion, including 2000’s Ghost Town and 2013’s Silent Comedy, but what elevates Music IS is the way Frisell brings his signature collaborative spirit to even a solitary setting. On songs like looped “Pretty Stars” and the spooky “Monica Jane,”  it feels like he’s playing a duet with himself, tapping into the same generous spirit he brings to his collaborative efforts with others, washing over his chorused melodies with ambient sustain.

Playing “off-balance,” and carefully attuned to the listening of producer Lee Townsend and engineer Tucker Martine, Frisell approached the record with few notions of what he might accomplish, only a stack of original compositions, some stretching all the way back to some of his earliest days.

“It’s a challenge, to just really be right there and open,” Frisell says. “If everyone is outside of themselves, it’s like you’re caressing the person next to you with your attention.”

And if you’re playing alone?

“Well, it’s harder,” Frisell says. “But at the same time, there’s this incredible freedom. When you’re alone, you can do whatever you want.”

Bill Frisell is scheduled to perform Sunday, May 20, at the Musical Instrument Museum. Tickets are $35-$45 via mim.org.

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