For the LJN “10 Tracks I Can’t Do Without” series, in which jazz musicians do a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, Liam Noble writes about Bill Frisell:
Bill Frisell is that rarity, a musician with avant garde leanings who became a kind of national treasure. He has an impressive list of associations from the worlds of pop and classical music, but it’s his own albums that define his sound, as well as a long association with Paul Motian. Emerging from the eclectic downtown scene in New York, he has developed an approach to the guitar combining extensive audio processing with live ensemble improvising and an almost pianistic span across the range of sounds and colors of the instrument.
I always think of it as density over velocity, the depth of counterpoint and sonic richness replacing the need for speed (a select family of improvisers that, for me, include people like Monk, Steve Lacy, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and Steve Swallow— slowness takes courage in improvised music!). As a pianist I envied the bend and the swell of the guitar, playing as I did an instrument where every note, once played, is unchangeable and essentially dying…I recently started using a keyboard and pedals to rectify this fact, and to acknowledge that maybe Frisell was the living musician I had most listened to in the past thirty years.
He represented an alternative to the jazz trajectory that seemed to become less and less open to outside influences: Frisell seemed, on the other hand, to absorb everything that crossed his path, yet retained the ability to make everyone around him sound great. In short, for a long time I wanted to be him, or at least to have that kind of work ethic. There are ten tracks here I can’t do without – that’s not going to be enough in the real world, but I hope each one points you to another ten!
- Power Tools: “Strange Meeting”.
My first ever Frisell experience; resolutely un-jazzy in many ways, it seemed all about sound and not notes. Of course, under the bonnet, these musicians are ALL about the notes. I love the rocky sound of this rhythm section, and Frisell’s massively processed sounds manage to nevertheless twist and turn around it. He’s recorded this a few times since, but this will always be the definitive version for me.
- Naked City: “Reanimator”.
This was the band that threw everything up in the air. A frenetic collage of jump cuts that perfectly anticipated the skittering attention spans of the internet generation, but what grabs me is how quickly each band member is able to establish an atmosphere, even for a few seconds. The discipline of the players is extraordinary: tighter than fusion and a lot more fun.
- Bill Frisell: “Before We Were Born”.
Frisell’s own writing in this period has an attention to details of harmonic motion that, amid the Zorn-ish contrasts, make it purely his. The opening snatches of melody are angular yet soothing somehow, the sound of curious ears picking out shapes on the guitar. The groove it suddenly drops into is, helped by Peter Scherer’s production, more like Frankie Goes To Hollywood but with unpredictable spaces straight from a jazz mindset. Stravinsky would have loved those opening chords.
- Motian On Broadway 2: “I Got Rhythm”:
Frisell’s own music is a world unto itself, but how did he blend in with a more straight ahead setting? His comping here snakes alongside Joe Lovano’s solo, smearing and bending the chords like Monk could, focusing on the groove. It’s slower than the standard jazz sprint, and it’s all the more appealing for it. Frisell’s solo somehow combines his love for Jim Hall’s discreet phrasing with a kind of country blues, and Haden and Motian maintain an impossibly perfect and interactive bounce. Yes I know, they are not exactly “straight ahead”, but…they are certainly in the tradition, here more than ever.
- Bobby Previte: “The Voice”.
This is one of my favorite albums from the so-called “Downtown” scene: Previte has an incredible talent for accommodating improvisers in a minimal compositional structure. Here, the urgency of the unison theme gives way to an almost Pink Floyd-ish guitar solo on a chord sequence that starts expansively and gradually folds in on itself. Frisell’s alt guitar hero solo here is simply beautiful, and holds you all the way through to the fade. I love the way Previte’s music rarely goes back to the opening theme…it’s onward and upward all the way. Not on YouTube, but search it out!
- Bill Frisell: “Where In The World”.
From a period of his music full to the brim of personal favorites, this is a track I keep coming back to. The bass line seems familiar, but it’s just off kilter enough and the slippery melody veers in and out of focus, clashing in harsh intervals only to inexplicably resolve at carefully considered points. I was listening to Stravinsky a lot when I heard this, and again it joined some more dots for me – the melody shines through, as it always does.
- Bill Frisell: “Roscoe”.
This is the “new look” Frisell, a warm and comforting wall of sound, textures gently drifting in and out. Except it’s not just that: this is finely crafted music, where every gesture counts. “Roscoe” shuffles along in what seems familiar territory, but the melody doubled in the bass makes it all feel a bit off centre, the phrases stopping and starting as spaces open up. Frisell’s opening note in his solo clash brilliantly with the major mood – this album is full of such delicate contrasts: like a painter switching from oils to watercolour, the outlines remain. And Jim Keltner….what a groove!
- Bill Frisell: “Better Than A Machine (For Vic Chestnut)”.
With Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston on drums, this piece seems full of charming and intricate lines that cross over each other, like a clockwork toy the different components somehow combine to keep it running. Frisell has always had an ear for a catchy riff, and this one moves from key to key with ease, perfectly balanced so the return to the home key always has a little uplift to it. It’s like they played the tune and then thought, “ok that’s all we need”. No soloing but lots of listening going on.
- Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan: “Lush Life”.
Always interesting to hear musicians that have taken an idiosyncratic path (Jarrett and Motian spring to mind) come back to standards. Frisell’s trademark bell-like tones and clusters reinvigorate this famously allows tricky tune, and he himself space to move towards and away from the melody like a modern Bud Powell. No effects here, but still the “Frisell sound”: how does he do it? I think there’s more in the fingers (and the mind) than perhaps people might give him credit for! And Thomas Morgan is the perfect accompanist in that he does more than just do that.
- Bill Frisell: “Hourglass”.
I haven’t included any Paul Motian trio tracks here (but I have ten of those for another time). Here, Frisell’s updated effects are to the fore, but the unison melody is straight out of Motian territory. For those who feel that he is taking it easy these days, this wonderful snippet is full of that specific Frisellian menace and melancholy that we love. I feel like he could get his signature sound out of vacuum cleaner without even plugging it in.
LINKS: LJN’s Bill Frisell coverage
Liam Noble’s Brother Face blog