Bill Frisell - Biography

Eclectic and versatile, guitarist Bill Frisell always manages to sound distinctively himself while fitting into any playing situation. He has become one of the most influential guitarists of the modern era with a wide-open approach that reconciles the sound of rock and R&B guitar with the sophisticated harmonic style and methods of jazz.

William Richard Frisell was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 18, 1951. The family soon moved to Denver, Colorado, where young Bill, inspired by Mouseketeer Jimmy of the Mickey Mouse Club, built a guitar out of cardboard and rubber bands. At nine, he started to study clarinet, and joined the Gold Sash Band, a marching and concert band. He also studied fundamentals of music in private clarinet lessons with the band's director. While playing clarinet in his junior high school band, he started learning tenor saxophone. but received his first real guitar for Christmas in 1962.

Frisell took his first trip to New York with the Gold Sash Band when the group played at the 1964 World’s Fair. Back home, he started taking guitar lessons at the Denver Folklore Center, where he was exposed to the music of players like Paul Butterfield, Otis Spann, Elizabeth Cotton, and Frank Zappa. He bought his first electric guitar in 1965. The next year, he started high school and continued to play the clarinet in the school band. While studying clarinet with Richard Joiner of the Denver Symphony, he was also practicing guitar, playing well enough to perform Wes Montgomery's "Bumpin’ On Sunset" at a school talent show. He also participated in a succession of garage bands, playing rock and soul covers. In 1968, he played in the "McDonald's All American High School Band" at the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, and at the Rose Bowl Parade.

In 1969, Frisell began taking guitar lessons with Dale Bruning, who had studied music and guitar with the legendary Dennis Sandole. Bruning exposed Frisell for the first time to important artists like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Charles Ives. He also helped Frisell apply much of the theory he had learned on clarinet to the guitar. When his parents moved to South Orange, New Jersey, Frisell had many opportunities to hear live music in New York, and he made the most of it. That fall, he started college at the University of Northern Colorado as a music major on clarinet, where he also played tenor saxophone and guitar in the big bands. In 1970, he won awards as the outstanding soloist in intercollegiate jazz festivals in Utah and Illinois.

Frisell finally decided to concentrate on the guitar in 1971. He was still taking lessons from Bruning, when he met the influential guitarist Jim Hall. Frisell attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music in Boston for one semester, then went to New York in 1972 to study with Hall for a couple of months. Soon he was back in Denver, where he continued studies with Bruning, played Glenn Miller arrangements in a big band, and began to give guitar lessons himself. Teaching and gigging kept him in Colorado for a few years, until he went back to Berklee in 1975. This time, he stayed for a while, studying guitar with John Damian and arranging and composition with Mike Gibbs and Herb Pomeroy, while making valuable connections with classmates like Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, and future bandmates Kermit Driscoll and Hank Roberts.

With jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass aiming for a pure, clean sound, and rock and soul players competing in a world where distortion and sound manipulation are part of the package, it fell to up and coming guitarists like Frisell, Metheny, and John Scofield to navigate a middle course. One of Frisell’s early influences in developing his style was Michael Gregory Jackson, a pioneer in the use of early guitar synthesizers, active in the avant-garde scenes in New York and Hartford, Connecticut during this period. Frisell once described his guitar style for Wire by saying “I suppose I play the kind of harmonic things Jim [Hall] would play but with a sound that comes from Jimi Hendrix.” His set-up usually includes various distortion pedals, delay lines, and a volume pedal.


Frisell moved to Belgium in 1978, to play in a jazz pop group with Steve Houben, Greg Badolato, Vinnie Johnson, and Kermit Driscoll, and make his first recording, Mauve Traffic. While in Europe, Frisell began writing his own music. His Berklee connections proved invaluable when he landed a tour of England with Mike Gibbs' Orchestra, a band that included Charlie Mariano, Kenny Wheeler, and Eberhard Weber. In January of 1979, he played on bassist Weber's Fluid Rustle (1979 ECM) in a group with Gary Burton on vibes.

Frisell moved back to the New York area in 1979, where he quickly began playing club dates with musicians like drummers D. Sharpe, Bob Moses, vibraphonist Dave Samuels, and saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Billy Drewes. On Metheny’s recommendation, Frisell auditioned for a quartet formed in 1980 by veteran drummer Paul Motian, the beginning of a fruitful and long-lasting relationship that continues to this day. Motian told Fred Jung in Jazz Weekly that “I liked him right way. I think his sound is different.” Frisell joined Motian for a European tour in 1981, recording Psalm (1982 ECM) late in the year with the quintet, which included saxophonists Drewes and Joe Lovano and Ed Schuller on bass. When Motian decided a couple of years later to pare the group down to a trio, he told Jung that “I picked Joe and Bill because I liked the way they played, the way we played together...They played great.”

Frisell appeared on several ECM releases in the early 80s, including bassist Arild Andersen’s A Molde Concert (1981), and saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Paths, Prints and Later That Evening (1982). His first recording under his own name was a solo arrangement of “Juliet of the Spirits” for producer Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota (1981 Hannibal), the first of many collaborations with the genre-bending producer. In 1982, Frisell recorded his first long-player, In Line (1982 ECM), a series of guitar solos and duets with bassist Anderson. Frisell established the roots of his long term success during this period, making business connections with a number of ECM employees who would later handle his booking and management, as well as striking up musical associations with John Zorn and others on New York’s burgeoning downtown scene.

By the time of Frisell’s second ECM release, Rambler (1984), featuring a quintet comprised of Motian, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, tubaist Bob Stewart, and electric bassist Jerome Harris, he was one busy guy and the pace kept accelerating. He made the first of his many recordings with composer Zorn in 1984, appearing on The Big Gundown (1985 Nonesuch/Icon). Tours of Europe with Paul Motian included stops in studios to record Jack Of Clubs (1984 Soul Note) in March with the quintet and It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago (1984 ECM) in September, the first recording by the trio with Joe Lovano. Gigs and recordings with, among others, Zorn, Motian, saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Bob Moses and the cooperative trio Power Tools with bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson preceded the debut of Frisell’s own quartet with bassist Kermit Driscoll, cellist Hank Roberts, and drummer Joey Baron. The band’s first release, Lookout For Hope (1987 ECM), was Frisell’s last release for the European label, and the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with producer/manager Lee Townsend.

Frisell began recording for Elektra/Musician (now Nonesuch Records) in 1988, an association that continues. His first release for the label was Before We Were Born (1989 Elektra/Musician), an album of original compositions featuring the quartet and some special guests. By the time of the follow-up, Is That You? (1989 Elektra/Musician), he and his family had moved to Seattle, Washington, where he remains based today. A strict chronology of his work since the move risks becoming a mere list of his (rather amazing) range of associations. Instead, it might be more useful to consider the disparate threads that comprise his career.

The quartet became a trio in 1991 when Roberts left the group. Frisell kept it going as a trio with bassist Driscoll and drummer Baron until 1995. The Quartet album (1996 Nonesuch) introduced a new band with trumpeter Ron Miles, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and violinist Eyvind Kang. Since then, no two of his many Nonesuch releases have used the same line-up. He has explored Americana on releases like Gone, Just Like a Train (1988 Nonesuch), Good Dog, Happy Man (1989 Nonesuch), Have a Little Faith (1992 Nonesuch), and Nashville (1996 Nonesuch). A series of trio releases includes Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (2001 Nonesuch), the live album East/West (2003 Nonesuch) with Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, and Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (2005 Nonesuch). There’s also been a series of albums emphasizing electronic textures, including the solo release Ghost Town (2000 Nonesuch), Unspeakable (2004 Nonesuch), and Floratone (2007 Blue Note), a collaboration with Matt Chamberlain. For a special project to compose music for painting by Gerhard Richter, Frisell assembled a modern string quartet with Roberts on cello, Jenny Scheinman on violin, and Eyvind Kang on viola (Richter 858, 2002 Songlines).

One of his most important collaborators has been composer /saxophonist John Zorn. Soon after their meeting in the 80s, Frisell began working with the iconoclastic musician on a wide range of projects, including early versions of Zorn’s game piece Cobra, the News From Lulu trio with trombonist George Lewis, which played mostly hard bop, music for films, and solo performances of Zorn’s pieces for Masada. Their best known project is Naked City, a band that lasted from 1989 to 1994, recording for Shimmy Disc, Elektra, and Avant. This jazz-rock vehicle for Zorn’s quick-cutting style featured Frisell, Zorn on alto sax, Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Joey Baron on drums, sometimes joined by vocalist Yamatsuka Eye.

Another motif of Frisell’s recording activity over the years has been performances with other guitarists, sometimes in duo format, beginning with Smash And Scatteration (1985 Minor Music), which comprised of duets with Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid. In 1986, he played a duet concert with Jim Hall at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and in 2008, the pair released an album on ArtistShare. Other partners have included Henry Kaiser, Leni Stern, John Scofield in the Bass Desires band, Pat Metheny, and his teacher, Dale Bruning.

The early meeting with Paul Motian has led to numerous projects over the years, including trios, quartets, and quintets in studios and countless gigs around the world. The trio’s most recent release is Time and Time Again (2006 ECM).

Another area of activity is composing for films. In 1995, the Frisell trio recorded two albums of scores for silent films featuring Buster Keaton. His music can also be heard in Gary Larson's animated short Tales from the Farside, and the feature films Psycho (the Gus van Sant remake), Finding Forrester, Wim Wenders' Million Dollar Hotel, and All Hat (2008 - EmArcy). He has also composed scores for the ballet and theater.

Frisell’s reputation for adaptability made him a much called upon sideman in the 80s and 90s, when he recorded with such disparate musicians as Don Byron, a trio with Ginger Baker and Charlie Haden, David Sanborn, Marianne Faithful, Elvis Costello, Robin Holcomb, Suzanne Vega, Richie Lee Jones, and in the house band for the Hal Willner produced tribute to Harry Smith. His broad style, encompassing the blues, a little country twang, unexpected power chords, clouds of sound and an air of casual dissonance, with a sensitivity to context and collaborators, ensures that wherever he turns up, you’ll hear something that fits just right.

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