More than jazz
Grammy-winning musician Bill Frisell brings trio to Big Room
Seattle-based guitarist and composer extraordinaire Bill Frisell is hard to categorize. The phenomenally talented and creative musician with the signature sound has played with everyone from big-gun jazzers Dave Holland, Elvin Jones and Charlie Haden to such stars as roots-music vocalists Hazel Dickens and Skeeter Davis, Dobro player Jerry Douglas and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker.
I caught up by phone with the adventurous musician recently at his daughter’s house in New York City. After telling Frisell that he is being billed here in Chico as primarily a jazz guitarist, I asked him if would be tailoring his show in any way to meet the possible expectations of an audience looking for jazz.
“No, I can’t let that stuff affect me,” the gentle-voiced Frisell told me. “I hate all these [genre] labels. Deep down, I feel like I am a jazz player. But I love the Beach Boys, the Ventures, Jimi Hendrix. The way I think about music, the way [my] music is constructed—that’s what I think jazz is. It’s interaction with the [players], the spontaneity, the way the music is affected by the surroundings. It changes from day to day, room to room.
“Jazz is not a style that ended in 1956,” Frisell continued. “Jazz.—it’s inclusive. Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, they were listening to all kinds of stuff—Hank Williams, Stravinsky. … Everything they heard they put into the music. If I play country, rock, Monk, it’s just music. I don’t tailor it for where I am. I tailor it for the people I’m playing with. We tailor it for each other.”
Frisell played with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III on his latest CD, Here Come the Choppers! Pedal-steel player Greg Leisz, who also played on Choppers, appears with violin player Jenny Scheinman on Frisell’s Grammy-nominated 2003 album The Intercontinentals, which includes the fine musicianship of Brazilian guitarist/vocalist Vinicius Cantuaria and Mali’s Boubacar Traore and Sidiki Camara.
We talked about an Amazon.com customer review of his music that said Frisell’s forays into bluegrass like 1997’s stunning Nashville and 1999’s Good Dog, Happy Man might be considered a “commercial sell-out.”
“Sell-out? For me, trying something different is a risk and a challenge,” Frisell countered. “For me, Nashville was one of the most avant-garde, risky things I’d ever done. … [Legendary jazz guitarist] Wes Montgomery got criticism for selling out because he was playing with an orchestra. To him, it was a challenge. He learned so much.”
Another reviewer criticizes Frisell’s approach on his latest Hal Willner-produced (Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed) album, Unspeakable—another new Frisell adventure, featuring Sex Mob bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen (Sex Mob, John Zorn’s Masada)—for incorporating “machine-like grooves” (along with liberal use of sampling) and relegating Scherr and Wollesen to “lock-step grooves” and “generic session parts.”
“I don’t know who that guy was, but maybe he never heard rhythm,” Frisell suggested good-naturedly. “It sounds good to me! For me, I was trying to learn something new, something different. To me, that’s not selling out. It’s the opposite.”
Frisell appears at the Big Room with the trio he performed with recently in Argentina and Mexico—bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Matt Chamberlain, whom Frisell calls “one of the most creative musicians I’ve ever met.” Chamberlain’s diverse credits include work with everyone from Tori Amos and Elton John to extra-avant-garde jazz group Critters Buggin and producer and rap star Kanye West.
“It’s just really fun to play with those guys,” Frisell says of Krauss and Chamberlain, each almost 20 years his junior. “It’s cool for me. … I don’t like figuring out a set list. Just what’s happening in the room sort of dictates what we do.”