Genre-bending guitarist Bill Frisell plays by his own rules
When the Monterey Jazz Festival commissioned legendary guitarist Bill Frisell to record an album that would premiere at the 2012 event, they wisely did not put any limitations on him.
“There weren’t any rules, really, they just asked me what I wanted to do,” Frisell says. “It was very wide open.”
No rules. Doing what he wanted. Very wide open. Anyone familiar with Frisell’s career knows he could very well be describing his entire discography with such statements. Though he is often called a jazz guitarist, over the course of three decades, he has released more than 30 albums ranging from jazz to Americana, from world music to film scores, and even recorded instrumental covers of classic John Lennon songs on 2011’s All We are Saying. His live shows regularly include spacey, off-kilter loops and a few shows have featured him providing the soundtrack to old Buster Keaton silent films.
Always thinking outside the box, Frisell’s aversion to labels is not surprising. “Labeling music in general makes me uncomfortable, whether it’s jazz, rock, anything,” he says. “I don’t like it when it gets boxed in that way, even with a title.”
It makes sense then that Big Sur—the collection of songs he ended up performing at last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, before releasing it as a proper album this past June—is not meant to simply be 19 odes to the beauty of the Big Sur coastline. The earthy, Americana jazz track “A Beautiful View” and the somewhat dissonant strings on the title track hint at the majesty of the area, for sure, but titles like “Cry Alone” and “Far Away” remind listeners that the album is also comprised of weightier themes.
“The music is so much more abstract than the title,” Frisell says. “It’s not as though I am literally trying to describe that place with music. It’s hopefully something more open than that.”
For a man who has toured the world countless times and worked hard to turn people’s notions of what constitutes jazz music on its ear, there was something relaxing and freeing about writing this new material at Glen Deven Ranch. The experience offered a much-needed respite from Frisell’s busy life.
“The biggest thing is that [the commission] gave me a chance to get off the treadmill I’m on all the time,” Frisell laughs. “So much running around, constantly traveling and just the way the world has gotten with email and cell phones. You’re being bombarded with stuff every second, so to just stop all that for a minute and be by myself was incredible. The most unusual part was I was by myself 90 percent of the time, so going hours or days without saying a word to anyone, talking on the phone or looking at television or anything allowed the music to come out.”
Released from distractions and free to focus on the music, the magnificence of the area and the profundity of Frisell’s thoughts allowed him to make a striking and introspective record.
“[Music] is where I feel like I can really be myself,” says Frisell. “It’s the way I communicate. It’s a whole world I live in where everything makes sense. I’m much more uncomfortable trying to communicate [by speaking], and it seems that whenever I start playing, everything somehow works out so much better.”
Bill Frisell performs at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $27/adv, $30/door. For more information, call 427-2227. Photo: Jimmy Katz