No Matter the Coast, Bill Frisell’s Guitar Sings


Guitarist Bill Frisell is now based in New York, following nearly three decades in Seattle.

(Photo: Monica Jane Frisell)

The latest reminder that guitar icon Bill Frisell remains a road warrior at 68 came in late September, when he crisscrossed the American heartland from one solo concert to the next. After spending a week at home in Brooklyn, where he relocated in the fall of 2017 after 29 years in Seattle, Frisell embarked on another round of touring, this time behind Harmony, his inaugural leader date for Blue Note.

During a tour break, Frisell discussed the project, recorded last March with vocalist Petra Haden, cellist-vocalist Hank Roberts and baritone guitarist-bassist-vocalist Luke Bergman. For much of the 47-minute album, a trio of harmonically intertwined voices frame Frisell’s probing explorations. That said, Haden has ample space to render penetrating readings of songs culled from the Great American Songbook (“Lush Life,” “On The Street Where You Live”) and the Americana Songbook (“Hard Times,” “Red River Valley”), as well as “Deep Dead Blue,” a tune that Frisell composed with Elvis Costello and recorded with him in 1995. She also wrings poignancy from Jesse Harris’ lyrics to “There In A Dream,” composed by bassist Charlie Haden (1937–2014), her father, once a frequent bandstand partner of Frisell’s.

“The way Petra’s musical ear zeroes in on a note makes me think of the way Charlie heard pitches,” Frisell said. “There’s genetic material in there. She sings with a real assuredness—I can push against her notes in ways that, with other people, might knock them over.”

Asked whether he himself sings, Frisell pointed to his hands. “My guitar is where I feel my voice is,” he said. “Even if I’m alone, like in the shower, I can’t bring myself to do it. It did break out one day in Seattle, like 25 years ago, when I’d been riding my bike for hours, and was in an underpass with a lot of cars, a lot of noise, and suddenly found myself singing out loud. It was like Sonny Rollins on the bridge or something.”

Although Frisell’s affinity for Rollins might not be readily apparent in his notes and tones, he continues to regard the saxophonist as a lodestar. “He’s a god to me,” Frisell said. “If I ever lose my own way, I look to him, and then, ‘OK, that’s what it’s all about.’”

He added: “Of course, I listen to more than Sonny Rollins. But a light bulb went off when Sonny played ‘The Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ or ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’ or whatever. It struck me that he played songs he heard in a movie or a Broadway show or that were floating around when he was a kid because he loves them and has a connection. It sort of gave me permission to reopen the doors to my own life.”

“Bill has deep ears for appreciating many different kinds of music and different forms,” said Roberts, who met Frisell in 1975 and began collaborating with him in the mid-’80s. “He doesn’t come off as a jazz guy trying to play some different style. He loves that music, and that sincerity is attached to the way he plays it. Of course, he has so many tools in his musical toolbox that if you’ve listened a lot to the traditional forms you might hear some other things that he brings to it.”

Although the aptly titled Harmony is a new release, Frisell already has recorded another forthcoming Blue Note album, a studio date with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. The trio enjoyed a long residency at the Village Vanguard in August. “It was amazing to be able to do those three weeks without staying in a hotel for $200 to $300 a night,” Frisell said. “In New York, a lot of things will happen on the spur of the moment. These last couple of weeks I was driving alone through the middle of the country, and I don’t know what’s happening out there, but it’s scary. It’s weird to say, but I feel safer here. I feel like I’ve come home.” DB

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