Interviews Masada Marathon

Something that lifts you up – Bill Frisell talks Music IS, playing solo, his return to Masada and the legacy of Johnny Smith

Bill Frisell - 04 - Photo Credit Monica Jane Frisell 2017 (1)
Photo credit: Monica Frisell

In this week’s installment of the Masada Marathon, The Music and Myth features one of the most celebrated guitar players of all time. Throughout his distinguished career, Bill Frisell has been playing music all across the spectrum, from ECM and collaborations with the likes of Paul Motian, Jan Garbarek and Arlid Andersen, to the New York Downtown Scene and his run with John Zorn’s Naked City.

This year, the legendary musician released Music IS, a splendid solo album of his own compositions as well as The Maid With The Flaxen Hair, a tribute to Johnny Smith, in duet with Mary Halvorson.

A longtime member of the “Zornverse”, Bill’s only Masada record so far was 2003’s Masada Guitars, where he was featured alongside fellow guitar heavyweights Marc Ribot and Tim Sparks. In August, he returns to the Masada universe with Netzach, the seventh album in The Book Beriah, by the Gnostic Trio (Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone and Carol Emanuel on harp).

I had the opportunity to speak with Bill over the phone during his recent stop in Hamburg. Many thanks to Phyllis Oyama for setting up the conversation!

With your recent release, Music IS, you’ve put out a rare solo record. Please tell me a bit about it. 

Playing alone – solo – has been sort of a long, long process for me. I mean, I was playing guitar for a long time before I ever tried to play a solo concert. The first time I really tried to play alone was sometime in – well, now it’s a long time ago – in the ‘80s. You know, I’ve been playing and playing and playing.

Music, for me, has always been about this dialog with other people. From when I first began music as a child, it was always about the communion with someone else and the conversation. Playing alone has always been a little bit like giving a speech, like standing up in front of people and just talking without getting anything in return. That’s the most difficult thing for me. If someone asks me a question, like we’re talking now, I have something to say. (laughs) But when I’m just alone or just trying to generate information by myself, it’s much more difficult.

I’m just saying, it’s been a long, slow process to feel comfortable when I’m playing alone. It still is. I’ve done a number of records. With Zorn, I did that Silent Comedy thing and, before that, it was Ghost Town. It was maybe fifteen years before; quite a while before that. And my first album on ECM started out as a solo project. Every once in a while I’ll do solo performances.

To prepare for Music IS, I played at The Stone. Actually, I’ll be there this coming week. But last year… I can’t believe it now, was it just a year ago? (laughs) Whenever it was, I did a week there where I played alone every night.

The preparation was almost like an anti-preparation. Every night, I tried to play music that I didn’t know, that I wasn’t familiar with or things I hadn’t played in a long time. I was trying to get myself in the frame of mind to really be in the moment. I wasn’t trying to work things out that I would later do in the studio but rather to get into a frame of mind where I was never quite sure what I was going to do next. So when I went into the studio to record that album, I brought a big pile of music and started with whatever was at the top and just let one thing lead to another. It felt different in that way. It wasn’t like practicing what I’m going to do in the studio and then going to do it in the studio.

Is there any particular reason you decided to put out a solo record now? I mean, since you’ve compared it to public speaking– 

Yeah, it’s similar to me. Still, though, as the years go by, I’ve become more and more comfortable. I think it’s almost just easier for me to really immerse myself. As long as I’m inside of the music, then everything is okay. It’s when my mind wanders, like if I think, “I wonder who’s listening to me?” and this or that. That’s always the problem. If I can stay inside the music, the music always tells me what to do. I think I’ve gotten better at that over the years.

Even more recently, at the end of July, you released a duet with Mary Halvorson, The Maid With The Flaxen Hair. Could you tell me a little bit about that? 

That was really such an amazing idea. I’ve known Mary for a while and we’ve played a few times here and there. Again, at The Stone. It keeps coming up. The connection with Zorn keeps running through all these things. But I’ve known her for quite a while and I’ve known about her and heard her. And this idea… I think it was John’s idea to do a tribute to Johnny Smith, who is this incredible musician but not so well known, you know?

To me, he is a giant legend of music, but he really almost retired from music in the mid ‘60s. In the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s he was really at the top. He was living in New York and everyone knew who he was. Then, he just decided to go away from that scene and he’s not as well-known today as I think he should be.

The idea was to do a tribute to him. To me it just made incredible sense. He moved to Colorado, where I grew up, so I had met him there and was able to take some lessons with him a long time ago. I’m talking about 1970 or something. So I knew him a little bit. When the idea to do this came up, it seemed like a great thing for Mary and I to do.

What’s also interesting is that the guitar Mary plays… I don’t know if many people would know that either, but her main guitar was a design of Johnny Smith’s. The very first time I saw Mary, it was in a small place in Seattle. I went to see her. I noticed right away, I thought, “Wow, she has one of these Johnny Smith-type guitars!” I didn’t even meet her at that time, I was just at the concert.

Anyway, there were all these connections with him. Really, it was a great way for us to connect more and it was a nice tribute for him too. All the songs on there are things that are associated with this guy, Johnny Smith. Even some of the arrangements are things that he had done.

You have a longstanding collaboration with John Zorn but you’ve only been featured on one Masada record. With Netzach, you are making your return to the Masada universe fifteen years after Masada Guitars

Yeah, there’s that. And then, a little bit, in the early time, when Zorn first started to do Masada with the Quartet–

You played some gigs with them, right?

Yeah, just sitting in every once in a while. I was really lucky. I got to hear that group right when they first started playing. I guess it was the first week that they ever played. They played in this restaurant in New York and it was packed with people and they were in the corner, playing. It was really cool to hear it at the beginning, right after he had started to write all those pieces.

How did you end up working on Netzach with The Gnostic Trio?

We did a number of albums together, I almost lost track. But the first time we played was just in the studio and there was a feeling, it just felt like a unified, sort of a special sound was happening. I think Zorn was very excited. You know, we did the first recording and it was like, “Wow… we have to do some more!” So we just kept doing more and more and it became a real… you know, it’s like a band that has a sound.

Actually, now you reminded me. I just remembered. I did a gig… it was sometime before this. It was at the Village Vanguard, where Zorn had a week of different things. I did a solo set there. Yeah, I forgot about that. I played Masada, some of these newer pieces, just solo on guitar. Maybe that was it. I don’t know if that led to it. It was just one set one night, but that I think it was some of these more recent pieces that we did with The Gnostic Trio.

Tell me a bit about the creative process behind Netzach. Did it differ in any way from recording the other Gnostic Trio records? 

I don’t know. For me, it’s not really different. The albums are done fast, usually in one day or maybe two. It’s really a similar process. There were some of these where I hadn’t even played the music before I went into the studio. I think the first of those Gnostic Trio records was just me sort of showing up, like, “I hope I can find my way through this.” (laughs) It just happens. You know, Zorn is there and we’ve done all of them at this Eastside Sound, where he does a lot of recording. And Marc Urselli, the engineer, has done all of them. There’s a comfort level. I mean, you feel safe. Zorn is there and he has his ideas of what would happen and Marc is an incredible, amazing engineer. And the room is kind of… you know, it’s a small studio, but it’s the perfect size for a group like this. Everybody’s comfortable and you just show up and start playing. It happens really fast.

I can’t say that there was any really different process with the Masada tunes. You’re just there and you begin whatever the piece is and there’s maybe a little bit of talking. I mean, Zorn is usually in the… I guess that’s what’s different! It’s almost like he’s in the band, because he’ll be in the room with us while we’re playing. A lot of times, there’s a producer and usually they would be in the control room or something but, with Zorn, for these records, he’s really right in there. You’re feeling his energy a lot.

Are there any records in the Masada catalog that have a special significance to you?

Oh boy… that’s hard for me to answer. To tell you the truth, I don’t listen to very much music, really. My house is filled with CDs, but it seems like in the last 20 years or so, as I’m playing more and more, I’m listening to less. Or, when I do, I’ll listen to a Beethoven string quartet or something. So I don’t know those records yet. I have a lot of them, but a lot of them I haven’t heard yet. And I don’t listen to the stuff I play on myself.

Why not?

That’s what’s weird about recording: the music is always moving. You play and then you want to play something else. So, when you record it, everything stops there. In a way, I guess I just want to keep going ahead. Maybe there’s just not enough time, but I’m not that interested to go back. When you’re doing the album – when you record it – that’s when you’re in the studio and you’re listening to it carefully. When you listen back and remix it or whatever and it’s kind of a really intense, amazing time. After that, I try to just let it go and try to move on to the next thing.

With Masada being such a monumental project, both for its ambitious scope as well as its twenty-five year history, did you feel any added weight when recording Netzach

No, not really. I mean, that’s what gives you the motivation. It’s inspiring. That’s what pulls you into the music – there’s an emotion in it. I don’t know how to describe the feeling that you feed on. It feeds you. It’s not a weight, it’s more like something that lifts you up, I think. It gives you what you need to know. It tells you what you’re supposed to do, somehow. It carries you. I didn’t feel like I had a pressure at all – it was sort of the opposite.

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