We had an intimate conversation with guitarist, composer and arranger Bill Frisell and talked about what jazz is to him, how he blends his whole life experience with music, and his concert at Zorlu Center PSM Drama Stage as part of the 25th Akbank Jazz Festival on October 23, 2015.
Despite being considered as one of the most innovative jazz guitar musicians, he humbly tells us how it still feels like he is at the very beginning.
I read that you’re probably the most important and innovative musician of the jazz guitar of your generation. How long has it been since you first started playing music? And why do you think that you’re considered as one of the most innovative jazz guitar musicians?
When they say things like that it feels so strange to me. I never would’ve dreamed… It doesn’t seem that long ago that I never would’ve dreamed that making recordings and touring… You know, it’s incredible what’s happened. I just feel so lucky. For me music is, it still feels like I’m at the very beginning. So it’s strange when people say “Oh, he’s great.” or I see my name in a magazine or here you want to do an interview. It all feels sort of like a dream or something.
Where did that music talent come from? Where did that passion come from as a child?
When I was ten years old, I started to play clarinet in the school band. But then, maybe when I was about twelve years old, I got my first guitar. But even before that, I was always fascinated with it somehow. I was always drawn to it. Maybe it came from television from a very young age; some of my earliest memories are of watching television shows. When my family first got a TV, I was so fascinated. I just loved the idea. There was a lot of stuff with cowboys, you know, playing guitars… Then later, the bands like the Beach Boys and the Ventures, and that kind of surf music, and cars, and hot rods…
Do you remember the first time you listened to traditional jazz? Do you remember who it was that inspired you, perhaps?
When I started, I would hear the Beach Boys, and then I would hear the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and I’d hear the blues… And then, when I was in high school, I heard Wes Montgomery. I always think of that as kind of a big moment.
You started doing a fusion of country and folk with jazz, which culminated in ‘Nashville’ in ‘97. How did you come about mixing the three?
I think that it’s weird because that was something that was already happening, that maybe people didn’t notice this until I actually went to Nashville. (Laughs) I think it has always been apart of what I was playing. When I made that album it was an amazing opportunity for me, and a kind of frightening one too, because it was the record company that asked me if I wanted to go to Nashville and just play with these guys. You know I didn’t know any of the people or anything. I just went there and met these guys, and we played.
For me, when I discovered jazz, it was the place where anything was possible. There weren’t really any rules. It was like okay, you’re free to just take it as far as your imagination can go.
Would you say that it was the greatest risk you’ve taken in your jazz career?
Well, I don’t know about that. For me it was a real adventure. I had no idea what was gonna happen. But I learned so much because the way they communicate with music was different. In the end it’s the same, but before that I would always write out the music on paper. If I went to some new group, it was sort of a way of communicating, I would bring a chart and everybody would read the chart. Then I went to Nashville and nobody read music in that way. They were really playing just by ear and learning. I would just play it and they would learn it, and it was kind of like wow, it was amazing to hear people playing on that level.
What do you have planned for the Jazz Festival in Istanbul?
I’m excited to be with a string group… violin, viola, cello, and myself. We’ve been playing together with this group for… I’ve known some of these people like Hank Roberts, the cello player, I’ve known for… Wow, I can’t believe it; I’ve known him for 40 years now. Yeah, I met him in 1975, so that’s 40 years I’ve known Hank. And I’ve known Jenny (Scheinman), Jenny is the violin player, for maybe… and both Eyvind (Kang) and her maybe more than 20 years I think. And we’ve been playing as a group, the four of us for at least 15 years or so, off and on. It’s incredible kind of a family feeling we have. And so the music is… what we’ll be playing is not from one particular project and I’m not even sure exactly what… we’ve done so many themes, and we can take from all these different themes and I’m already thinking about new things that I’d like to try so I can’t say exactly what it will be.