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Bending chords

Bill Frisell re-invents the jazz guitar


It would be difficult to come up with an instrument more popular in the Western world over the last half century than the guitar. From three-chord punks to virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Julian Bream, untold millions have played this humble, stringed wooden box and all of its permutations.

In the jazz genre alone, guitarists run the gamut from Wes Montgomery's trademark octaves to Pat Metheny's liquid sound, and giants like Charlie Christian, Grant Green, and Joe Pass carved out their own niches.

But if you think you've heard just about everything that can be done with a guitar, forget about it. Meet Bill Frisell.

Despite the daunting challenge of standing out from his contemporaries and the titans of the past, Frisell has quietly expanded the vocabulary of the guitar, establishing his own sound in the process.

It can vary from song to song, but Frisell's guitar conjures unpredictable dreamscapes of chord bursts, harmonics, twangs, and notes bent out of tune for a delicious nanosecond. Frisell can be calm one minute and then launch into distorted histrionics. He seems to know spaces between the frets that nobody else has found.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"The people I admired growing up, every one had their own individual style," says Frisell. "Miles, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins --- any musician who I love --- part of the deal is they would have an instantly identifiable sound."

The only thing unidentifiable about Frisell's sound is what category to put it in. His repertoire on his soon-to-be-released multi-disc live album East/West mixes originals with a Motown classic, "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" and a Bob Dylan tune, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

And one of Frisell's major contributions to the musical melting pot is his resurrection of the great American traditional song.

If you sang "Shenandoah" in assembly at primary school I'll bet you never imagined you'd be listening to it on a cutting-edge guitarist's album. But here it is, reborn and hauntingly beautiful.

"There's so much music back in the early part of the century that I became fascinated with, trying to figure out where things are coming from that we're hearing now," says Frisell. "Sometimes I choose a song not really because of a nostalgic thing but because it's part of my background and it's a part of my life."

As for genre bending, Frisell simply has no interest in maintaining borders.

"I love trying to find those places where you can't tell... Seems like everything's become divided up into these boxes now," he says. "Not too long ago it seemed like you couldn't say whether it was blues or folk or country or black or white, it was just all mixed together."

Because his music is so outside the box, it's fitting that Frisell is close friends with Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson. They often collaborate musically.

"Jim Hall [with whom Frisell studied briefly in the early 1970s] introduced me to him," says Frisell. "He spends most of his time playing guitar and he lives close to me in Seattle so I just go over there and we play together."

Frisell has composed music for a film by Larson. He's also written and released music for several of Buster Keaton's silent films.

While Frisell's music often reaches back into our collective past, one of the elements that makes his work so distinctive is his embrace of modern technology. Among the devices he uses is an Electro-Harmonix delay box that enables him to recycle and manipulate the phrases he plays.

"Everything I'm playing is going through this thing," he says. "It's not on all the time, but at any moment I can grab a little piece of what I'm playing --- it's like a little recorder thing --- and then speed it up or slow it down or have it play back the same way I played it.

"That's something I almost think of as a different instrument than the guitar, even though the guitar is what's feeding it. It's kind of random. I don't really know what's going to come out of it. Sometimes I use it just to kind of scramble up my brain and throw things off a little bit. Or I can use it to make subliminal sounds or drones."

His distinctive sound might make him one of the most difficult guitarists to categorize, but it also makes Frisell one of the most sought-after players in a variety of genres. He's collaborated with an unusual range of musicians from clarinetist Don Byron to performance artist Laurie Anderson and rocker Elvis Costello.

"He's great," Frisell says of Costello. "He's really wide open. He knows so much music; he just has a really great attitude. He wants to learn. He's constantly running from one thing to another. There's no rock-star attitude, he's just a really humble guy."

Frisell also continues a tradition he began in the early 1980s: showing up on many of the best albums released on the German ECM label. The latest, drummer Paul Motian's I Have the Room Above Her, is a trio effort with Frisell and Joe Lovano. As in the finest jazz, when three distinctive players are brought together, the result is more than the sum of its parts.

"That's how we learn more than in any kind of school or lessons from anybody," says Frisell. "It seems like when I sit down with somebody and play, that's when stuff starts really flying around."

In each of his collaborations --- and Frisell's discography lists hundreds of them --- he does not simply bring the Frisell sound to the table and play.

"I try to just be in whatever the situation is. I'm not trying to force my thing; it's the opposite. I'm more trying to learn from whoever it is I'm with and fit in with it rather than trying to impose myself on it."

Even though he has played with a long list of contemporary giants, Frisell has a wish-list of players he'd love to work with.

"Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins... those people are still sort of larger than life. I can't imagine I'll ever even meet those guys," he says. "But I feel so lucky; the people who I am playing with I couldn't be happier with. It's an incredible circle of people."

Frisell has gotten to know the guitar as intimately as anyone. In fact, even though he has had no intention of collecting, he now owns about 30 guitars. "It's getting a little out of hand," he says.

What does he think it is about the guitar that makes it so endlessly expressive in so many different styles?

"There's so much in there. There are only six strings and however many frets, but it's the possibilities --- every day you can find something in there. In some ways every time I pick it up it feels like the first time. It's like, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do with this thing? How do you play this?'"

The Bill Frisell Trio plays at Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street, on Friday, June 10, at 6 and 10 p.m., as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. Free with Club Pass. $20 tickets available at the venue, space permitting. www.rochesterjazz.com

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