When you think of jazz, what’s the first instrument that comes to mind? Most likely it’s a horn, like a trumpet or a saxophone. Perhaps it could be the drums with the rhythms and beats being the engine that revs up a song. Believe it or not, the guitar also has a big presence in the genre. Bill Frisell has been one of the leaders of playing this kind of music on his six-string since the ‘80s and he’ll be performing at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich Saturday night.
We had a conversation ahead of the show about what got him into jazz, getting involved in the New York City scene during the ‘80s, moving from there to Seattle and back and how he has a ton of traveling to do.
Rob Duguay: What would you say first gravitated you to playing jazz on guitar, especially since the instrument is more associated with rock music to the casual fan?
Bill Frisell: Rock is actually what got me going in the first place. I was born in 1951, so by the time I was in my teens during the ‘60s it was all happening. It seemed like everybody wanted to play the guitar so I just went along with the program. I’ve loved the intimacy of it for as long as I can remember. Surf music got me started and when The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show it was a gigantic, life-changing moment.
Within just a few years after that, I started taking little steps and learning along the way. There was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and that led me to blues music. Eventually I discovered Wes Montgomery and that was the turning point for me when I heard him. It opened the door to this whole world that I’m in now, I guess.
RD: That’s an incredible journey that you took. In the ‘80s, you moved from Denver to Hoboken, NJ and you started a partnership with John Zorn from the avant-garde band Naked City. Looking back, how would you describe that time in your life and how vital was working with John when it came to you progressing as a musician?
BF: John has been a close friend since I first met him. I think his impact on me, just his whole way of thinking, is pretty big. We’re close to the same age and we grew up in similar ways and we went through a lot of the same stuff. We’ve had the same musical attractions but he has a completely different way of structuring things. I think that really affected me, we’re also still doing stuff to this day.
I just talked to him the other day, actually. We’ve had a long, ongoing friendship. There were also so many other things going on at that time. When you’re in the midst of it, you don’t really have a sense of what is actually happening. It’s easy to look back and say that it was the “downtown scene” or it was this or that. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s just rampant chunks of time that’s going by.
I was traveling to Europe a lot and I was doing all kinds of stuff, it was an amazing time. It always has been, maybe we’ll reflect on this and be like “Wow, what was going on?” in a good way.
RD: It truly sounds like it. What was the main catalyst that made you want to move from New York City to the Seattle area in 1988 and then move back to The Big Apple a couple years ago?
BF: Around the late ‘80s, there was just too much activity for me in New York. I was still trying to figure out what my own thing was. My daughter was three years old and we decided to move to Seattle and it was great for a couple of decades. Recently it felt like it was time to get back, but I never really left. When I was living in Seattle, I was traveling all the time and I was in New York a lot. Since I’ve moved back there, it feels a lot like going back home.
RD: New York City is a place that’s always changing. Businesses close down and new ones pop up and neighborhoods are getting new types of people. When it comes to living there in the ‘80s to now, how much do you think has really changed?
BF: Just the other day, I was walking down the Bowery. There’s places that I would have been afraid to walk down 30 years ago but now it’s like Disneyland or something. At the same time, things are always moving around. Something will come and it’ll shift over to another neighborhood and there’s always something going on. There’s so much music happening all the time and that’s what blows my mind.
Any second you want to go do something, there’s something that you’ll enjoy checking out. That’s what I love about being here now. A lot of the people that I play with are all there so, like I said, it’s like coming back home.
RD: There always has been a vibrant music scene in New York City, any type of music you want to hear can be found there.
BF: Yeah, that’s for sure.
RD: You released 37 albums so far in your career along with countless collaborations. What inspires you to be so prolific?
BF: That’s a weird question because I don’t have to think about it. Ever since I started, the nature of music always set the next step up. You play one note and then you ask yourself what the next one is until you get a song and then you ask yourself what the next song is. It’s like this constant that just keeps me going, like this perpetual motion or something like that. I don’t have any plan or any overall goal, I just keep on going along with whatever path I’m on.
Today, I’ll pick up my guitar and I’ll fiddle around with it until I figure something out. Then I’ll keep going and going and going.
RD: You’re going to be all over the place with gigs all over the United States and in Europe until December. So what do you have planned afterwards?
BF: Kind of like what you said, I’m just playing all over the place like crazy. When I come to Rhode Island for the show that’s coming up, it’s during the beginning of this little solo tour and that’s what I’m thinking about currently at the moment. It’s something that I’ve been slowly working on, to be able to play by myself. It’s usually always been about playing with other people so it’s taken me a long, long time to get comfortable with playing alone. I’ll be doing a bunch of that over the next couple of weeks.
Then I’ll just keep going on from that, there’s a lot of traveling involved. Flying for six hours just to play for one hour can get crazy, but I feel really lucky. That’s for sure.