Bill Frisell Surfs Space-Time via Lennon, Lloyd, Big Sur, Motian, and More

BILL FRISELL SELDOM STANDS STILL. IN THE PAST TWO YEARS alone he has released an adventurous album of improvised solo guitar pieces (Silent Comedy), a brilliant tribute to the music of John Lennon (All We Are Saying ...), his second successful collaboration with drummer Matt Chamberlain and producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine (Floratone II), and two superb concert albums.
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BILL FRISELL SELDOM STANDS STILL. IN THE PAST TWO YEARS alone he has released an adventurous album of improvised solo guitar pieces (Silent Comedy), a brilliant tribute to the music of John Lennon (All We Are Saying ...), his second successful collaboration with drummer Matt Chamberlain and producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine (Floratone II), and two superb concert albums. Additionally, Frisell has composed and conducted music for live multimedia celebrations of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (a studio recording of which was also released), as well as contributing to recordings and performances by Charles Lloyd, Chick Corea, Marianne Faithfull, the Bad Plus, Joni Mitchell, and other artists. And then, of course, there’s the touring as leader of various ensembles.

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Despite the guitarist’s proclivity for activity, however, while composing the music that appears on his latest album, Big Sur [Okeh], Frisell was voluntarily sequestered on an 860-acre ranch located in the ruggedly beautiful Central California coastal region bearing the same name. Commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, and then engendered and nurtured by a ten-day residency at Glen Deven Ranch, the 19 pieces on Big Sur in many ways reflect the quietude and lack of distraction Frisell experienced while composing them amidst such majestic surroundings. The Big Sur Quintet—Hank Roberts (cello), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Rudy Royston (drums), and Frisell—also rehearsed the music at Glen Deven before performing and recording it.

Talk about the Allen Ginsberg and Hunter S. Thompson projects that were recently featured by SFJazz.

That was an incredible experience that came through [producer] Hal Willner, who I’ve had a very long relationship with. What was unique about it was that he asked me to just write the music without playing guitar, which was the first time anyone thought to do that, and I was honored. I’ve always played in the ensembles and had my guitar as a kind of safety net. This left me feeling a little more naked, though having my very close friends playing the music helped a lot. And I also relied on them in terms of my conducting. I went to music school, and even took some conducting classes about 40 years ago, but I’m certainly not a conductor, and I couldn’t have done it with just any musicians.

There was also a very personal dimension to working on Kaddish, which is the rather tragic story of Ginsberg’s mother’s life. He wrote the poem three years after she died, and I was working on the music three years after my own mother’s death, so that resonated with me. Also, Paul Motian, who I’d played with for 30 years, passed away right in the midst of writing that music, so it was an important thing for me to do somehow.

How did Silent Comedy come about?

For a long time John Zorn had been talking to me about recording a solo guitar record, but we could never get the timing to work out, and then all of a sudden I had a day free. He booked a studio, and I went in without and preparation or preconceptions. I just wanted to do something really spontaneous in the moment and not obsess over it. We recorded, mixed, sequenced, and titled everything within just a few hours.

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The performances are all one take with no overdubs?

Yeah. I just set up a lot of pedals and started messing around, and that’s what came out.

Do you remember which pedals you used, and in particular how you got those great ring modulator sounds?

I always use the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. Some of the looping was done with that, and there’s even a way to get a ring-modulator sound out of it—but I also used a ZVex Ringtone TT. Then there was an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai, which also does looping, a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb, an E-H Freeze pedal that I really love, and an E-H Supergo Synth Engine. To get the extreme distortion sounds with all of the crazy overtones I combined an Electro-Harmonix Pocket Metal Muff with a Jam Pedals Wahcko wah pedal.

What guitar did you play?

I played a Nash Tele with TV Jones Filter’Tron neck and Lollar Tele bridge pickups.

What’s the story behind All We Are Saying ...?

This is sort of a weird time in my life, when so many things have been coming around in a huge circle. I already mentioned Kaddish and Paul Motian, and shortly after Paul’s death the saxophonist Charles Lloyd asked me to do some gigs. One of the first concerts I ever attended was Charles with Paul Motian on drums. That was 1969, the year I graduated from high school, which was a very important time for me. So there’s a connection there. I also just did some gigs with Marianne Faithfull, and we played “As Tears Go By,” which was one of the first songs I learned how to play on the guitar, around 1964, which is also when I heard the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. During those few years in the ’60s, when I was just starting to get an inkling of what I wanted to play, I had my mind blown by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and then a couple years later by Wes Montgomery, and then Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. So, to do All We Are Saying ... was incredible, though it wasn’t really even intentional. I was touring in Europe and because it was a Lennon anniversary of some sort we were asked to play Lennon music on the first date of the tour. That went so well, however, that we decided to just keep doing it, and we wound up playing Lennon’s music on the entire tour. Then, a few years later the folks at Savoy Records asked me to record the album. These things seem to sort of appear before me and I just do them. But then they end up meaning so much.

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What is that brown guitar that you’re playing in the video for All We Are Saying ...?

I love that guitar. It’s a Joseph Yanuziello. He’s from Toronto. The guitar is modeled on cheap guitars from the ’50s, but it is amazingly made. It has a hollow body and I think the top is cedar, so it’s super lightweight. The other guitar I used on the recording was a ’63 Stratocaster, and although I never dreamed I’d get to play a guitar like that, and it sounded incredible for certain things, I wound up using the Yanuziello most of the time because it sounds so clear.

The ’63 Strat is the red one in the video?

Yeah. It wasn’t that long ago that I only had one guitar, and now there are a bunch of them, including some really good ones. Another one is the Jay Black Tele that I played on Big Sur. I knew Jay in New York when he worked for Roger Sadowsky, and then he was one of the early Fender Custom Shop guys. When he left Fender he moved to Eugene, Oregon, which is dangerously close to Seattle, so I reconnected with him and I’m really getting spoiled because he’ll get an idea for something and I’ll try it out. Anyway, that Tele with the DeArmond pickups is my keep-with-me-all-the-time guitar. That one is extra special to me.

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It isn’t exactly a Tele, though, is it?

No, not exactly. It looks like a sunburst Telecaster Custom with a bound body, but it isn’t completely hollow. Jay sliced off the top, routed out the body, and put the top back on. Also, it has a 24 3/4" scale length, which is shorter than on a normal Telecaster and more like you’d find on a Gibson, making it sound slightly different and feel a little easier on your hands, especially when playing down low. And the pickups are like the single-coil DeArmonds found on some ’50s Gretsch guitars. They’re not as loud or high-output as a P-90, but at the same time they don’t sound thin, and the tone is very clear. They are screwed directly into the body, so there’s this interaction with the top where they are vibrating at the same time. I don’t know if it’s scientifically proven that that does anything, but I think it does [laughs]. The pickups on my Yanuziello guitar are also screwed right into the body.

Briefly describe your Big Sur experience.

At the time the opportunity came up I was realizing how important it is for me to allow myself space to think. In one sense it doesn’t matter where you are, because if you want space you have to make it inside yourself. Your brain can still be fried even if you are in a beautiful place. But the opportunity to spend ten days completely alone in Big Sur surrounded by that beautiful space, with no cell or Internet service, not looking at a clock unless I wanted to, was extraordinary. And I also wasn’t on a tight deadline to compose, as the concert was months away.

Did you establish a work routine of some sort?

Kind of, but it was loose. There were trails everywhere, with benches at some points and panoramic views of the ocean. Usually I didn’t have my guitar, just a notebook, and I’d write down melodies or whatever came into my head. Then, I’d go back to the guesthouse and play through those things on guitar, developing ideas from there.

Did you start with any concept?

No. And I was a little torn about calling the album Big Sur, because I wasn’t trying to make the music describe where I was. I was just letting the setting allow me to make whatever music wanted to come out. But, having said that, when recording, we’d be playing something and it would trigger a memory of a particular view or something, so it did come back in that way. Again, it’s that thing about the inside and the outside. I’m not sure which is which sometimes. The band also rehearsed there at one point, so they had the opportunity to experience where I was when I wrote the music, rather than just playing some abstract notes on a piece of paper.

Your tones are relatively consistent throughout Big Sur. What did you use to record it?

Yeah, there’s a lot more straight-ahead clean guitar than usual on that one. The only guitar I used was the Jay Black Tele, played through a couple of really nice amps that they have at Fantasy Studios. One was an old Fender Princeton Reverb that I use frequently when I record there, and the other was a Matchless. The room is also really nice, and figured into the overall sound.

Did you use your stereo setup?

Yes, I mostly used both amps at the same time. But recently I’ve been doing more and more recordings with just a guitar plugged straight into a single amp. A while back I was doing a session, and when I tried plugging straight into my amp the engineer came running out and said, “What was that sound?” That got me thinking. So, for example, on Paul Motian’s last album that I recorded with him, The Windmills of Your Mind, I just played my Rick Kelly Tele into an old Ampeg with nothing on it but a little amp reverb. That Tele has a pine body cut from a beam that came out of [director , writer, composer] Jim Jarmusch’s old loft on the Bowery, a paduok neck from an old barn, and Lollar Charlie Christian pickups. I also made a record with bassist Greg Cohen, on which I played my Nash Tele directly into a 1950 Fender Champ with an 8" speaker and a single volume knob, and it was like “Oh my God!” It sounded like everything I needed right there. I guess what I’m saying is I’m realizing after all this messing around with all this junk that it might eventually get back to just the guitar itself.

That sort of parallels your returning to earlier musical experiences.

Yeah. For a long time, especially when I was trying to learn to play jazz, I couldn’t even stand having reverb on an amp. But I do enjoy using effects, so both approaches are good. On Big Sur I tended to use the amp tremolo and reverb more than pedals.

So that fuzzy tremolo sound on “Going to California” is the amp tremolo?

Yeah. That was an overdub. Most of the sounds are just the Jay Black Tele with both pickups on, which creates a super-clean, sort of surf sound.

Speaking of surf, “The Big One” sounds like every surf song ever written and yet it doesn’t sound like any of them.

We didn’t play that tune on the gig, and I wasn’t planning to record it, but when I played part of it at a rehearsal everyone loved it, so we wound up recording it. I couldn’t help writing that piece, but it really sort of began as a joke. Now I’m happy we did it, because it feels honest, and it also reminded me that one of the first things I tried to play on guitar was “Wipe Out.” Also, not much surf music uses a string quartet, which helps a little bit [laughs].

On “Gather Good Things” and “Hawks” there’s this huge low-end distorted tone. Do you remember how you got that?

That’s probably that combination of the Pocket Metal Muff and the Wahcko wah pedal that I mentioned before.

What’s next on your agenda?

I’m just about to leave on a tour with the Big Sur Quintet, which feels like the beginning of something new because I know that we’ll take the music to someplace different than what’s on the record, and I’m excited about that. And then I have some more gigs with Charles Lloyd later in the year. The way these things keep coming around, like I said, I’m getting to play with some of the people that first inspired me at the very beginning. Are you familiar with Johnny Smith?


He just passed away a couple weeks ago at age 90.

You studied with him for a while, right?

Yes, I got to know him and study with him a little in Colorado. I was about 19, and he really encouraged me to keep going at a time when I wasn’t certain about becoming a musician. And after all these years, now that he has passed away, I’m just realizing what was right there in front of me, and how lucky I was. I only recently learned that he wrote “Walk, Don’t Run,” which the Ventures had a huge hit with, and which was one of the first surf songs I ever heard. Then, just yesterday I went for a walk here in Seattle and there was a guy sitting on his porch playing guitar, and he’s playing “Walk, Don’t Run”—but he wasn’t playing it like the Ventures, he was playing it like Johnny Smith. It was so weird. There just seem to be all of these amazing, circular things happening.

Well, while you were talking about the Beatles, Matt Blackett began strumming a Beatles tune on his acoustic just outside my office.

That stuff happens more and more. I guess those connections are there all the time, but maybe you just start to notice them more?

Do you find that they happen more frequently when there’s a lot of creative energy flowing and you’re all charged up?

Yeah, maybe, because then I feel like I’m really in tune and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When I’m really in the music, then I start noticing all that stuff.

And maybe even attracting it, almost like magnetism?


It’s interesting.

Yeah, it’s wild. I feel so lucky. In addition to all of the things I already mentioned, I got to play “Woodstock” with Joni Mitchell at a tribute concert in Toronto, and Paul Motian was at Woodstock with Arlo Guthrie. And when I went to London to play with Marianne Faithfull, I met John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono. And Charles Lloyd lived in Big Sur and played extensively with the Beach Boys, and the first record I ever bought was “Surfer Girl”/“Little Deuce Coupe.” And Al Jardine still lives in Big Sur, and the Beach Boys made a record about Big Sur. It’s all just the same stuff swirling around and around.