Bill Frisell

There is a select handful of jazz guitarists who have an immediately recognizable tone. John Scofield is one, so is Pat Metheny, and so is Mary Halvorsen. But no jazz guitarist has quite as distinctive a sound as Bill Frisell, and few are as renowned for the beauty as well as the uniqueness of their personal tone. While he’s fully capable of shredding and creating hellacious noise – as some of his earlier work, particularly with John Zorn’s Naked City ensemble, makes clear – Frisell has always been much more likely to work in a lyrical vein, often drawing on elements of American folk and country music while at the same time incorporating delay, chorus, and looping effects in creative ways. 

Frisell came to national attention in the 1980s, when he was part of the fertile New York scene and was not only playing avant-garde skronk with John Zorn and others but also gently expanding the boundaries of straight-ahead jazz with his own trio and as part of drummer Paul Motian’s combo (with whom he was featured on a series of standards albums released under the title On Broadway). During this period he also played as a sideman on several experimental jazz albums on the ECM label and released the solo albums In Line and Rambler, which foreshadowed some of his later stylistic directions. 

In the 1990s Frisell began digging into a variety of American music traditions, bringing more elements of country music into his playing while also recording arrangements of works by classical composers that had themselves incorporated elements of folk and country music – in particular Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. In more recent years the Carter Family song “Wildwood Flower” has become a staple of his live performances, and he has also performed a solo arrangement of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” that is notable for both its tenderness and its melodic invention. 

Since the turn of the century Frisell’s projects have become ever more diverse and adventurous, even as they have tended to remain accessible to a broad audience and as he has continued to play prolifically in a straight-ahead style (notably with a standard guitar trio featuring bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston). He created an instrumental album featuring his arrangements of songs from Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s album Painted from Memory, an album-length program of arrangements of John Lennon’s songs, an album of musical responses to the photographs of Mike Disfarmer, a suite of program music inspired by Big Sur, and many more. He continues to be very much in demand as a session player and has helped to foster the careers of young musicians of a similarly adventurous bent including Mary Halvorsen, Jenny Scheinman, and the late Ron Miles.

Big Sur cover

This is not exactly a jazz album. Bill Frisell composed the music while staying on a ranch in Big Sur, and performed it for the first time at the 2012 Monterey Jazz festival. The 19-part suite is written for a quintet of guitar, violin, viola, cello, and drums (he’s reunited here with cellist Hank Roberts, who played on some of Frisell’s earliest solo albums), and it’s basically designed as program music — intended to convey the beauty, expanse, and fragility of that beautiful region of California. It does so exquisitely, and sometimes sadly.

Live cover

Bill Frisell’s 1990s work alongside bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron remains some of his most joyful and experimental. On this live set, he revisits some of the tunes that had brought him early success as a solo artist: the searching “Throughout,” the puckish “Rag,” his deeply emotional cover of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.” Driscoll and Baron match Frisell’s expansive playing style with impressionistic (and, in Baron’s case, sometimes downright pointillistic) lines that support and respond to him perfectly.

Have a Little Faith cover

This is one of Bill Frisell’s oddest and most wonderful records. It opens with his arrangement of a suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet score to Billy the Kid, then proceeds to a couple of pieces by Charles Ives before covering Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Madonna, and Stephen Foster, among others. In short this is an Americana album, where “Americana” is defined to include the whole scope of 20th-century American music, as refracted through Frisell’s unique compositional sensibility. It’s unlike any other “jazz” album you’ll ever hear — and if his rendition of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, have your pulse checked.

Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian cover

Talk about a supergroup, or a summit meeting. Three superstar jazz musicians, each with a very different stylistic background, coming together to make an album of both standards and originals and creating something simultaneously unique and traditional. The program opens with a splayed blues (“Eighty-One,” cowritten by Carter and Miles Davis) and proceeds to cover the traditional “Pretty Polly,” a Thelonious Monk obscurity (“Raise Four”), and a gently jaunty take on “On the Street Where You Live.” You could probably call this a straight-ahead jazz album, but it always sounds just off-kilter enough to make you sit up and listen hard.

In Line cover

Bill Frisell’s 1983 solo debut remains an astounding listen forty years after its initial release. Accompanied only by bassist Arild Andersen (who plays on only five of the album’s nine tracks), Frisell delivers an all-original program that includes the gorgeous “Throughout” (on which he overdubs acoustic and electric guitars) and the sweetly elegiac “Shorts.” Frisell tone positively glistens, and the music he is making here was unlike anything else on the scene at the time — or since.

Lookout for Hope cover

In 1988, the Bill Frisell Band consisted of Frisell, cellist/singer Hank Roberts, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drummer Joey Baron. It was a rather odd ensemble, but perfect for Frisell’s rather odd — but deeply rewarding — approach to jazz guitar. By this point his unique tone was fully developed, and there are also hints of the Americana jones that would animate so much of his later work (check out the chugging “Little Brother Bobby,” for example). And there’s an amazing arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Hackensack.”

The Best of Bill Frisell, Vol. 1: Folk Songs cover

This best-of collection (despite its title, there doesn’t seem to have ever been a second volume) draws tracks from several Bill Frisell albums on which he focused on interpretations of folk and country songs (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Sugar Baby,” “Wildwood Flower,” etc.) alongside country-flavored tunes of his own (“Rag,” “Raccoon Cat,” etc.). He’s accompanied by an all-star cast that includes banjo player Danny Barnes, slide guitarist Jerry Douglas, and bassist Viktor Krauss, among others, and the music is both warm and sometimes surprising.

Epistrophy cover

Bill Frisell has worked with a lot of fantastic bass players over the course of his career, but there’s been something special about his work with the young Thomas Morgan. On this heartrendingly beautiful live album (recorded in the intimate environs of the Village Vanguard), Frisell and Morgan are playing as a duo, running through jazz standards, country favorites like “Red River Valley” and “Wildwood Flower,” film music, and a couple of Monk compositions. No originals — just loving interpretations of tunes that you’ll never hear the same way again.

Music IS cover

To prepare for this fully solo guitar album, Bill Frisell spent a week playing solo at the famed New York venue The Stone, trying to play new material every night and to keep himself from getting musically comfortable. Then he went into the studio, and what came out of the resulting sessions is one of the most beautiful and crystalline albums of his long and storied career. Some of the tracks are older material (“Rambler,” “In Line”), but all of it shimmers with new ideas and new intonations.

Nashville cover

Bill Frisell’s love of American country music is well documented and has informed even his most straight-ahead jazz albums. On Nashville, he goes whole hog: accompanied by bluegrass luminaries like Ron Block (banjo), Jerry Douglas (slide guitar) and Adam Steffey (mandolin), he creates a program of mostly original country tunes with a jazz undertow. The three covers are songs by Neil Young, Hazel Dickens, and Skeeter Davis — beautifully sung by Robin Holcomb. This is a warm and loving tribute to music that has deeply shaped Frisell’s development as an artist.

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