Genre Bender

 Posted by
Jul 042012

Whether your idea of a great guitarist is Jimi Hendrix, John Fahey, Wes Montgomery, Link Wray, John McLaughlin, or Ry Cooder, you’re bound to like something of Bill Frisell. The man is a modest and unassuming musician who is in perpetual motion, playing ragtime, jazz, ambient, rock, bluegrass, and experimental noise.

[audio:|titles=Bill Frissell:Have a Little Faith in Me] [audio:|titles=Bill Frissell:In Line]

Frisell always seems to have been around, collaborating with Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Ginger Baker, David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Arto Lindsay, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, Vic Chestnutt, David Sanborn, Brian Eno, Bono, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois, Rickie Lee Jones, Vernon Reid, Elliot Sharp, Van Dyke Parks, Loudon Wainwright, and Earth.

[audio:|titles=Bill Frissell:I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry] [audio:|titles=Bill Frissell: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall]

My first recognition of his solo work was with his gorgeous instrumental covers of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” and John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith In Me.”  The height of my fandom came when I saw him perform a live soundtrack to films of Buster Keaton (I am in fact a card-carrying member of the International Buster Keaton Society) in Brooklyn.

[audio:|titles=Bill Frissell: I Heard it Through the Grapevine] [audio:|titles=Bill Frissell: Blues for Los Angeles]

There is something about Frisell’s Americana, something that carries a sense of appreciation of quality, style, wit, and gumption. His Fender Telecaster has provenance, proudly yet quietly displaying its roots. We sense a cultural heritage, listening to his covers and originals, downtown jazz, dive-bomber blues, nostalgic pastiche, country twang, digital loops, or any other genre he sits down to play.

Do you have a favorite he’s contributed to?


  11 Responses to “Genre Bender”

  1. I really liked his work on the original John Zorn Naked City album, especially the Ennio Morricone number, The Sicilian Clan. He just takes a hair off of his glacial sound to fit in and it works beautifully.

  2. An interesting thing about Frisell’s approach is how often he works from restrained vocal melodies, often which serve a support role to the prominent words of the song. Not that these are bad melodies, but they are not typically instrumental; they usually rely on subtle phrasing and flow instead of athletic flash.He plays these like he’s actually singing the words in his head. It’s nice to think that someone with such a subtle and low key approach can have the successful niche that he’s carved out.

  3. Slim Jade

    An astute observation! I’m always singing along to his instrumentals.

  4. I hear what you’re saying, geo, and maybe this will help me get my head around the guy. He’s always been so subtle for me that I can’t make sense of what I should be appreciating. Of the selections Slim Jade has presented “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the one that most catches my attention. There’s a lot I’ve always liked about that song and how it can be approached from different angles.

  5. I first heard Frisell via Elvis Costello. They did a live EP together in the mid-’90s that I enjoyed. I wound up buying Frisell’s Nashville album, which is really interesting, but I haven’t listened to it in years. I should really pull it out again soon.

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    My main observation about Frisell is that I get him mixed up with Mark Ribot.

    I’ve enjoyed listening to his playing, and (think) I can hear his strong technique but I haven’t really warmed up to him. However, I did appreciate the stuff he composed for the Buster Keaton movies. In those, I could hear greater emotional shifts and musical quirkiness rather than (merely) a virtuosic guitar player.

  7. Deek Langoustine

    The solo album “Is That You” great piece of work. Good to see some stuff about him on RTH

  8. I’d almost think of Ribot as the anti-Frisell, or vice versa. Ribot’s standard setting is spiky, Frisell’s is languid. I know that they both have a wider range than those characterizations, but I still think it’s a pretty accurate contrast.

    I’ve noticed nearly every “To Turn You On”, has been about some interesting slightly obscure, slightly abstract guitar hero. Even the drummer feature was loaded with clean, multi-guitarist grooves. I’m expecting Ribot to come up for review soon.

  9. ladymisskirroyale

    My difficulties sorting out MR from BF are mine and most likely mine alone; I can hear more reverb in Ribot’s work, in general. But I tend to need to hear vocals as a counterpoint to the guitar to highlight the sound/style of the guitar, and I think of both of these gents as “arty guitar players who create primarily instrumental compositions.”

    Geo, I will venture a guess that “To Turn You On” will at some point include a focus on Ribot. I will also guess that such a piece will bring out the strong voices of the Bad Attitude Club.

  10. Slim Jade

    Y’all have me pegged!

  11. This is the song “The Sicilian Clan” by John Zorn’s Naked City. In addition to Frisell, the band included another unusual guitar great, Fred Frith, although he was relegated to bass.

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