Er was born in the same year as the Fender Telecaster. It could not remain without consequences. Bill Frisell has played many guitars, electric, acoustic, with a battery of foot pedals, synthesizers and effects devices. But the Telecaster, mother of all electric guitars, seems to have become his natural partner. In any case, that’s the best way to speak. And that is meant literally. “Music is how I talk,” he remarked in one of his kindly granted interviews, which never came out. At least no great musical knowledge. Whoever wants to understand the humble, deliberate search for words, has to listen to his music. But there is more to discover than with hardly any other contemporary guitarist.
It’s mostly because of how he treats each tone. All are obviously worth it to him to be included in one of his melodies. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Bill Frisell came from a musical family and enjoyed the best musical education at the University of Northern Colorado and Berklee College of Music in Boston, but then only once at the bitter end of New York City, with the cheeky grubby kids from the East Village and the tear-proof avant-garde of the Knitting Factory.
The art of phrasing and shimmering harmonics
Since then, one can hear practically everything sounding in his playing, the infinite expanses of the Midwest as in the scores of Aaron Copland or Lou Harrison, the flashing feedback of Jimi Hendrix, the ingeniously simple paraphrases on John Lennon’s songs or the cryptically elongated sound threads of Morton Feldman, which you can spin back home after one of his concerts to think about it in peace. But what one hears most of all is the transformation of tones into lyricisms.
He is a phrasing artist. The simplest sound connections are created by the way in which he perceives and shapes the beginning, middle and end of each tone, how he listens to the acoustic signals, separates them from one another through subtle pauses or lets them rub against one another, how he lets shimmering flageolets float in space – so become musical structures to the purest timbre poetry.
A musical chameleon
Frisell can also act very differently, with Vernon Reid using the entire electronic arsenal of distortion as explosively as Jackson Pollock all painting tools in his action painting. How country music from Nashville come together with bebop eccentricity à la Thelonious Monk or the experimental art from the underground construction of the Center Pompidou in Paris can only be experienced with Bill Frisell.
You could call him a musical chameleon whose timbre can match the green grass of Kentucky as easily as the brownstone houses in Brooklyn. If that didn’t sound too much like an aesthetic compromise. Let’s put it this way: Bill Frisell is a sovereign in all registers of the guitar and the Euro-Afro-American tone system. That’s why Bill Frisell can also work with Marianne Faithfull and Paul Motian, with Arto Lindsay and Ginger Baker, Gavin Bryars and Burt Bacharach. So with everyone. Today he is seventy years old.