Bill Frisell Biography

William Richard Frisell, 18 March 1951, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Frisell is acknowledged as one of the most influential and exciting jazz guitarists to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. Collaborating with artists from the world of pop, country, world and classical music has, in addition, brought his unique style to a much wider audience than many of his contemporaries.

Frisell, whose father was a tuba and string-bass player, was raised in Denver, Colorado. He began playing clarinet, then saxophone, finally settling on guitar. He also plays banjo, ukulele and bass. He majored in music at North Colorado University (1969-71) and in 1977 was awarded a diploma in arranging and composition from Berklee College Of Music, as well as winning the Harris Stanton guitar award. He took lessons from Jim Hall, Johnny Smith and Dale Bruning, and cited his favourite players as Hall, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix. In the late 70s he began to experiment with a quasi-microtonal style, developing an ambient sound that allowed him to diversify from his bebop roots. At the start of the following decade he signed to ECM Records, recording a number of solo albums and collaborating freely with many of the label’s artists. During this period he played with many major contemporary jazz figures, including Eberhard Weber, Mike Gibbs, Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Julius Hemphill, Gunter Hampel, and John Scofield.

Since the late 80s, the Seattle-based Frisell has collaborated with a startling number of artists from a diverse range of musical genres, including Ronald Shannon Jackson and bass player Melvin Gibbs as Power Tools, John Zorn’s harmolodic hardcore indulgence Naked City, the News For Lulu bebop trio with Zorn and George Lewis, the Paul Bley Quartet featuring John Surman and Paul Motian, and Motian’s trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano. Frisell’s solo work found a wider audience with the release of 1993’s Have A Little Faith together with a lengthy (by his standards) tour. Everchanging, in typical jazz musician style, just as he had established a first class trio (with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron) in 1995 he abandoned the idea for a drummerless unit of trombone, trumpet, guitar and violin. This quartet (featuring Ron Miles, Curtis Fowlkes and Eyvind Kang) released a superb album for the Nonesuch label in 1996. By the mid-90s, Frisell was so in-demand that he was working on several projects at the same time, including collaborations with drummers Ginger Baker and Michael Shrieve and singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. He also composed two albums of soundtracks for the silent films of Buster Keaton, and in 1997 decamped to Nashville to record a country-influenced album with the aid of dobro player Jerry Douglas, bass player Viktor Krauss, and members of Alison Krauss’ band Union Station.

Frisell continued to experiment with roots music on the late 90s albums, Gone, Just Like A Train and Good Dog, Happy Man. At the start of the new millennium, he released his first truly ‘solo’ album, Ghost Town, playing all the instruments (guitar, bass, banjo) and contributing looped samples. Trumpeter Ron Miles and steel guitarist Greg Leisz contributed beautifully understated support to the follow-up Blues Dream. Frisell returned to the country vibe of Nashville with 2002’s The Willies, teaming up with Danny Barnes (the Bad Livers) and bass player Keith Lowe on a collection of largely traditional material. He cast his net wider for the superlative follow-up The Intercontinentals, blending his investigation of Americana with folk music from other continents. He was supported in this venture by regular collaborators Jenny Scheinman (violin) and Greg Leisz (steel guitar), as well as Brazilian guitarist Vinicius Cantuária, Malian percussionist/vocalist Sidiki Camara, and Greek-Macedonian vocalist/oud player Christos Govetas. During the same period, Frisell collaborated with Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola) and Hank Roberts (cello) on music to accompany a book of paintings by Gerhard Richter.

In 2004, Frisell broke with regular producer Lee Townsend to record Unspeakable with the more maverick talents of Hal Willner. The album eschewed Americana and instead took inspiration from classic US soul, utilising a string section and Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) from Sex Mob to great effect on what proved to be Frisell’s most upbeat recording for some time.

Frisell’s style makes use of electronics to produce long sustained notes with lots of vibrato and legato lines, possibly a legacy of his training as a reed player. He is equally convincing whether stitching feedback howls into the midst of violent Naked City melees or playing gentle country-influenced solo tunes, post-modern bottleneck blues or lop-sided melancholic ballads. Much of his most recent work shows him riding a peak of creativity. With the likes of Scofield and Pat Metheny he is currently one of the world’s leading all-round jazz guitarists.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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