Blindfold Test: Bill Frisell


Bill Frisell and writer Ashley Kahn at this year’s North Sea Jazz Fest.

(Photo: Wouter Vellekoop)

Fortunate and few are the jazz headliners with options like guitar maestro Bill Frisell, who can choose to lead various bands simultaneously and tour as a featured sideman as well (with drummer Andrew Cyrille). His current choices? The bass-less Bill Frisell FOUR (with saxophonist Greg Tardy, pianist Gerald Clayton and drummer Johnathan Blake) and his double-trio FIVE (with bassists Thomas Morgan and Tony Scherr, and drummers Rudy Royston and Kenny Wollesen), with both groups revealing an expansive musical vision. They share Frisell’s understated, melody-driven sound, and both allow their performances to develop and deepen at their own pace, one tune leading to the next with no pause for applause, maintaining mood and melodic flow. On the first day of this year’s North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, before he performed with Cyrille’s quartet and then later with his FOUR lineup, Frisell participated in a live Blindfold Test as part of the festival’s “Talking Jazz” series, choosing not to rate any of the music using DownBeat’s traditional 5-star system.

Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton

“Work” (That’s The Way I Feel Now, A&M, 1984) Spedding, Frampton, electric guitars; Marcus Miller, electric bass; Anton Fig, drums.

“Work” — Monk’s tune. It’s nice but it reminds me of how at Berklee they’ll tell you about harmony and 1–3–5–7–9–11 and say just keep piling it up, and we try to stick in as much as you can. But I started thinking about what you leave out, and it was like, Wait a minute! That opens up all kinds of other possibilities. I found this Blindfold Test where they played Monk tunes for Monk and one tune was by Phineas Newborn, and he’s a master. But Monk said, “No, no, that’s not the bridge — don’t play the seventh in those chords.” I would love to hear what he would have to say about these guys. Oh, man.

Hank Garland

“Tammy” (Velvet Guitar, Harmony, 1960) Garland, electric guitar.

It’s Johnny Smith, right? As a guitarist, I can tell it’s a big archtop guitar. “Tammy?” That’s totally from my childhood — I remember the movie. That was just very beautiful: straightahead tone and harmony. Maybe it’s a little corny but I’ve grown to appreciate just playing melody. I don’t know if it really needed bass and drums. [afterwards] I have this album! I should know this. I think Hank and Johnny Smith were friends. Also I always think of Gary Burton when I think of Hank — Gary played with a lot of those Nashville guys.

Makaya McCraven

“Lonely” (In The Moment, International Anthem, 2014) McCraven, drums; Jeff Parker, electric guitar; Marquis Hill, trumpet; Justefan, vibraphone; Junius Paul, bass.

I like the feel of the guitar player here, where he puts the notes. No affectation. Not derivative. Whoever it is, they had their own thing there. There’s a guy in Chicago who surprises me a lot with the range of what he does and there’s a clarity and a no-bullshit thing in everything I’ve heard him do. Is it Jeff Parker? It is? It was more from the spirit that I get from him than actually recognizing the specific sound. There’s this song — “My Ideal” — I kept playing over and over again during the pandemic, trying to learn it. I was like fumbling around. Then I heard Jeff’s version of it — he has that sound: I don’t hear all those references but at the same time it’s coming from the history somehow.

Mary Halvorson

“Moonburn” (Belladonna, Nonesuch, 2022) Halvorson, electric guitar; Maya Bennardo, Olivia De Prato, violins; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; Tyler J. Borden, cello; Junius Paul, bass; Makaya McCraven, drums.

Some of the things I just said about Jeff is what I’d say about the first time I heard Mary Halvorson. This was quite a while ago in Seattle. It’s this double-edged thing — there are so many players where you hear the references and the influences but somehow she came out and just stripped all that away. She found her own voice right away. I love her playing and recently heard her at the Big Ears Festival playing music she had written for guitar and string quartet, like this. It was amazing. She’s awesome.

Kurt Rosenwinkel

“Feed The Birds (Tuppence A Bag)” (Everybody Wants To Be A Cat: Disney Jazz Vol. 1, Disney, 2009) Rosenwinkel, electric guitar, piano; Joshua Thurston-Milgrom, acoustic bass; Tobias Backhaus, drums.

Is this from Mary Poppins? Beautiful song. I’m at a loss. It was very well organized and planned out. I just can’t think who it could be. [afterwards] Wow. Kurt crossed my mind. Was that from a long time ago? I haven’t heard him play recently without effects, just a naked guitar sound. He’s another astounding player. He took some liberties with this tune but it felt, in a way, very … there were a lot of places they could have done something. They just had it very worked out with the arrangement. That always happens to me — I do a recording and then do the gig and things start breaking apart more. I’m sure that would have happened with this tune, too.

Chico Hamilton

“Larry Of Arabia” (The Dealer, Impulse, 1967) Hamilton, drums; Larry Coryell, electric guitar; Ernie Hayes, organ.

At first I was thinking Kenny Burrell, but then … I really liked it. Wait. I’ve heard this, but I can’t put my finger on it. Again, it’s the guitar that’s being played — a fat guitar. I can see the guitar and he’s pushing it a little bit past what it’s supposed to do. It’s Larry Coryell. You can hear that. The thing that made me think of super-early Larry is that he played a big Gibson archtop guitar — like Mary Halvorson’s, with the same pickup Mary uses. What also gave it away was his eighth notes, the feel when he started to play the more bebop vocabulary. He came out of that — starting out playing in a rock band in Seattle, then getting into Wes Montgomery and all that stuff. I first heard Larry soon after this, in 1968, at the first jazz concert I ever went to, when he was performing with Gary Burton, playing that same guitar, and he was feeding back. You can hear the edges of that starting to happen here. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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