A Long, Rambling Chat with an Iconic, Eclectic and Remarkably Humble Guitar God Named Bill Frisell
Updated: Mar 2
photo by Paul Moore
Full disclosure here. Bill Frisell and I are longtime pals. I've known Billy since the early '80s, back when he was sporting a Ned Flanders mustache and just beginning to get accolades for his work as 'house guitarist' for ECM Records. By then, Bill had already recorded as a sideman for a number of ECM artists, including bassist German bassist-composer Eberhard Weber, Norwegian bassist-composer Arild Andersen, Norwegian saxophonist-composer Jan Garbarek and American drummer-composer Paul Motian, with whom he would continue to play and record for the next three decades. Frisell had released his debut recording on ECM, 1983's In Line , around the time I had met him. We were introduced by a mutual friend, guitarist, Lou Reed sideman and well known curmudgeon Roert Quine, who had deemed me worthy enough to tell Frisell, "That guy's alright." Bill's first album galvanized a generation of guitar players for its sheer 'otherness' at a time when Pat Metheny's warm, appealing Lexicon Prime Time delay-inflected signature was the most copied sound on the planet among aspiring guitarists.
Over the years, Frisell's highly expressive playing has ranged from simple acoustic folk guitar strumming to abrasive distortion-laced skronking to swinging bebop, from backwards looped psychedelia and evocative soundscapes to country twang and classic cowboy songs, from jangling surf rock to Broadway show tunes to genuine nods to the Beach Boys and The Byrds, from urgent funk to gentle lyricism to haunting heartland tunes...all executed with an intuitive genius that is wholly unteachable and impossible to imitate. Like the best improvisers, Bill often seems to surprise himself with the choices he makes in the moment within a solo, whether it's a subtle chord voicing, a nuanced phrase or an aggressive gut-punch of an attack.
Wielding his axe like a divining rod directly to the heart, Frisell can summon up a depth of sweetness behind a melody like Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now," conjure up sadness on melancholy prairie hymns like "Hard Times Come Again No More," "Shenandoah" or "Red River Valley," tweak a sense of nostalgia and longing on the Disney nugget "When You Wish Upon a Star," or capture a sense of transcendent romance on timeless ballads like "Moon River" or "When I Fall in Love." And few other guitarists can better convey a sense of joyful uplift on the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" or pull at the heartstrings more profoundly on Hank Willliams' mournful lament, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
On the other side of the coin, Frisell can also conjure up hellacious soundscapes, as he did so effectively and with such abandon with John Zorn's early '90s band Naked City, on his 1985 duet album with fellow guitarist and Living Colour founder Vernon Reid, the aptly-titled Smash & Scatteration, or his 1986 duet with avant garde alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne on ...Theoretically or on Berne's 1987's raucous quartet album, Fulton Street Maul. More evidence of this 'sicker' side of Bill's playing can be heard on the extended piece "Hard Plains Drifter" from his 1988 album Before We Were Born, on "Old Sugar Bear" from 2004's Unspeakable and his 2005 string quartet album, Richter 858. And what ever possessed Frisell to compose his beautiful, Copland-esque ode to former president Jimmy Carter on his
1992 album, This Land? (That prescient and moving piece suddenly takes on more solemnity and grandeur in the wake of news that the 39th president of the United States and onetime Nobel Peace Prize winner has entered hospice care in the same home in Plains, Georgia he and his wife Rosyln have occupied since 1961).
Frisell exemplifies the phrase "plays well with others." His uncanny eclecticism and open-minded/good-hearted approach to music-making has resulted in an amazingly eclectic array of collaborations, from Elvis Costell to John Zorn, Marianne Faithfull, Vernon Reid, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Norah Jones, Jeff Buckley, Charles Lloyd, McCoy Tyner, Fred Hersch,, Joe Jackson, Ginger Baker, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Mike Stern,
Jack DeJohnette, Ronald Shannon Jackson, , Vinicius Cantuária, Bob Moses, Hank Roberts, Arto Lindsay, Andrew Cyrille, Wadada Leo Smith, Julius Hemphill, Lee Konitz, Jim Pepper, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Robben Ford, Mary Halvorsen, Mark Ribot, Bobby Previte, Henry Kaiser, Julian Lage, Hal Willner, Mark Bingham, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Caetano Veloso, Lyle Mays, Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint, Rickie Lee Jones, David Sanborn, George Lewis, Thomas Morgan, Joey Baron, Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Shawn Colvin, Vic Chestnutt, Loudin Wainwright III, Betty Buckly, Carrie Rodriguez, Petra Haden, Lizz Wright, Jerry Granelli, Matt Wilson, Greg Tardy, Skúli Sverrisson, Richard Hell, Robert Plant, Dave Alvin, Renée Fleming, Ron Miles and, course, Joe Lovano and Paul Motian as a longtime member of Motian's expansive trio for over 30 years. And that's just scratching the surface!
What is it about guitarist Bill Frisell that generates such respect from fans, critics and fellow musicians? That’s one of the questions that filmmaker Emma Franz pursued in her insightful 2017 documentary, Bill Frisell, A Portrait. In fact, she put the question to one of Bill’s towering influences and eventual collaborators, guitarist Jim Hall (1930–2013), who summed him up this way: “I think of Bill Frisell as kind of a far-out, cloud-like eminence. But he can really swing, too. Bill is moving the guitar to a different place from where it had been—really inventive and musical and chance-taking. He has a unique aura about him ... .”
Frisell first met Hall in Denver in 1970. “My teacher Dale Bruning had told me about Jim, and then he came to Denver to play at the Senate Lounge,” Bill recalled. “I had already heard Intermodulation, the duo album Jim did with Bill Evans. Then in 1971, I had gone to Berklee for a semester, but that didn’t work out so I went to go live with my parents, who had moved to New Jersey by this time. Right at the beginning of 1972, my dad took me to this place called The Guitar in Manhattan, where Jim was playing a duo with Ron Carter. Before that, I had written Jim a letter asking if I could take lessons. So we drove there, parked the car, and we were walking to the club when a cab pulls up and Jim was getting out of the cab with that old Gibson amp of his. And I said to him, "Hey, I’m that kid that wrote you that letter," and I got to carry his amp for him into the club. It wasn’t too long after that I began taking lessons with him. I’d go there every week for about two months. I was just a 21-year-old kid and Jim was this hero of mine. I just couldn’t believe it! But he was so friendly and unassuming and just so encouraging. It was a brief period but so inspiring.”
Born in Baltimore on March 18, 1951, Frisell grew up in Denver and studied clarinet as a youth with Richard Joiner of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. But going back even further, it was an iconic figure from a childrens tv show who may have sparked Bill's initial interest in guitar. Credit Jimmie Dodd, host of The Mickey Mouse Club, with planting the six-string seed. Head Mouseketeer Dodd, who also wrote the theme song for that popular nationally televised show that aired five days a week from 1955-1959, premiered his Mousegetar on a show that aired on November 11, 1955, just a few months from Frisell’s fifth birthday. Dodds’ adeptness on the instrument was immediately evident in his crisp, Django-esque filigrees between strummed chords on the tune “I’m a Guitar.” It may have been that very song that first captured the imagination of young Billy Frisell. “Right there is what got me wanting to play the guitar,” he said. I think I was about four.”
In Philip Watson’s definitive biography on the iconic guitarist, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music (Faber), he elaborates:
“We moved here (Denver) in 1955, around the time we got our first television. I can clearly remember the evening my father brought this strange box into the house, and it being a big deal. When I was around four or five, I’d watch cartoons on that black-and-white TV in this
house every day, and I sort of became addicted. I’d watch The Mickey Mouse Club and at the end of the show the host, a guy named Jimmie Dodd, would come on to say goodbye, or sometimes to deliver some message, and all the kids with their Mouseketeer ears on would gather round, and he would play his guitar and they’d sing a song. Jimmie Dodd’s guitar had a drawing of Mickey Mouse’s head on it, with two big round ears on the body up by the neck. It was called a 'Mousegetar' and I thought it was just so cool. It was this beautiful, fascinating object that seemed to have the power to bring everyone together. So I took a piece of cardboard, drew out the shape of a guitar, cut it out and put rubber bands on it for strings. That was my first guitar."
Frisell's interest in guitar grew with his exposure to pop music on the radio and the blues records he heard by Otis Rush, B.B. King, Paul Butterfield and Buddy Guy. Jimi Hendrix also exerted a powerful influence on him early on. But it was a jazz concert he attended during the summer of 1968 that really turned his head around. “I was still in high school and had recently discovered Wes Montgomery, which was the most mind-blowing thing for me ... one of those huge turning points. Wes was coming to Denver to play at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, so my dad got tickets and we were going to go together. And then Wes passed away [on June 15, 1968], right before the gig. So I told my dad, ‘Well, let’s go anyway and see what the concert is.’ It was a traveling Newport show with Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk. Dionne Warwick was there, and Gary Burton’s quartet with Larry Coryell. Then a couple of months later, Charles Lloyd came to Denver and I went to see him. It was the band with Keith Jarrett, and Paul Motian was playing drums. I didn’t know what any of it was. It was right at the onset of me checking out this music ... a lot of stuff was coming at me real fast, and that just flipped me out.”
During his last year of high school, Frisell began studying with guitarist Dale Bruning. At the same time he was checking out Gary Burton’s Duster, Lofty Flake Anagram and A Genuine Tong Funeral, all of which featured Coryell on guitar. “Then I started noticing that a lot of the tunes were written by Steve Swallow, Carla Bley and Mike Gibbs,” he recalled. “There’s something about those people that just had a huge impact on the way that I still think about harmony and melody.”
After briefly attending the University of Northern Colorado, where he studied with guitar great Johnny Smith, Frisell moved to Boston in 1971 to attend the Berklee College of Music, where he studied with guitar professor Jon Damian. After returning to Berklee in 1975, he began studying with Mike Gibbs. “I took all of Mike Gibbs’ classes and I played in his student band,” he said. “It was so amazing to get to spend that time with him.”
Frisell left Boston in 1978 and relocated to Belgium, where he met his future wife, artist Carole d’Inverno. After a couple of months, he got a call from Gibbs to sub for Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine on a British Arts Council tour of England with the Electric Chrome Orchestra. “That was the first kind of professional real gig I ever had,” he said. “That’s where I met Kenny Wheeler, who was like a god to me. I first heard him playing with Anthony Braxton in Boston and then he had that ECM record Gnu High [a 1975 recording with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette], which everybody at Berklee had back then. And then to actually meet that guy was something else. John Marshall was playing drums in that band, and I didn’t realize at the time I had seen him when I saw Soft Machine open for Jimi Hendrix in 1967. Eberhard Weber was also in that band, and every night Mike would give us this little segment where we’d just play duo. And Eberhard was impressed with what I did, so he asked me to play on a record date he had coming up with Gary Burton, which was Fluid Rustle. And that was the first contact I had with ECM.”
In 1979, the same year he had recorded on Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle, Frisell relocated to New York. “I was scuffling along for a couple of years. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do?’ I was living in New Jersey and I’d drive four hours out to the end of Long Island to play a wedding or whatever. I was just trying to get by.” Eventually, he started getting calls from an old mentor. “Mike Gibbs was in New York then and had a gig at Seventh Avenue South, so he called me for that. I showed up, and there was Bob Moses and Steve Swallow in the band. So I met them, and then Moses started calling me for gigs. And then Paul Motian ... meeting him was the biggest turning point in my life. It’s just incredible the way that one thing leads to another, especially in New York.”
In rapid succession in 1982, he appeared on Paul Motian's Psalm, Arild Andersen's A Molde Concert, a second album with Weber, Later That Evening, Jan Garbarek's Paths, Prints, Bob Moses' When Elephants Dream of Music and recorded his own ECM debut, In Line, in August of that year. He was off and running.
I have interviewed Frisell maybe a dozen times or more over the years for a variety of magazines, including Downbeat, Jazziz, Guitar Player and Jazz Times. In the following unexpurgated tête-à tête (portions of which appeared in Feb. 2023 issue of GP), he reminisced about our mutual friend Bob Quine, his in-person encounters with guitar greats Johnny Smith and Jim Hall along with the lessons he learned from important teachers, mentors and role models who helped shape Bill into the unparalleled player that he is today.
I know about the fabled jams you had with Bob Quine at Chip Stern’s place in the 1980s. Quine played me a cassette tape from one of those jams.
Yeah, Chip had a place on the Upper West Side on West End Avenue with drums and amps and guitars and a bass. We jammed there a few times. It’s documented. Chip’s got everything on tape.
So we have Chip to thank for bringing you and Quine together, which led to your introduction to the Electro Harmonix 16 second delay pedal. And the rest is history.
Yeah, Chip was right there when Quine brought it up there to one of the jams. And it was sort of this instantaneous thing for me. I just knew what to do with it. It was like it was made for me or something. And Quine was sort of like amazed. His mouth was hanging open watching me play with the thing. I swear, it was like...somehow it was just all laid out perfectly so it made sense to me. It just fit with the way my brain was working.
Of course, you’ve done so much over time with that concept of looping and delays and backwards guitar. But on you new Blue Note album, 'Four,' you only do that more experimental stuff on one just tune, "Dog on a Roof.” I’m guessing that title might be a reference to Mitt Romney.
Yeah (laughs). I thought I was going to make it through the whole record without using that fuckin’ thing. I’ve been using that stuff less and less lately. The last few months of being out there playing, I haven’t really used any effects at all. Mainly just using reverb is about the only sort of effect, if you call that an effect. I’m using a Line 6 DL-4 for that.
That’s the same pedal that Mary Halvorson uses, right?
Yeah, that's what I’ve been using for a while. I had the Electro Harmonix 16-second delay and then that kind of bit the dust so I got a Digitech 8-second delay, which was also another thing that Quine introduced me to. He always was the first guy to get the new stuff. And then after the Digitech pedal I got the Line 6 pedal. And that’s pretty much been for...I don’t know, 20 or more years now. But I’m getting pretty burned out on the whole effects thing. I did a solo gig a couple of months ago, and that's a situation where I always would rely on effects and looping so much. But I was proud of myself. I did the whole gig without using any pedals or anything, just playing by myself. That was sort of the true test, I guess. What’s kind of cool is the way that those devices affect you. They affected the way you hear structures in the music, and you carry that over into your playing. So if you take the box away, it’s still in your imagination. So now I’m trying to get at some of that stuff that I would have done with the delay pedal but just doing it with my hands. It’s like you learn something from the machine. It will teach you something that you figure out how to do yourself.
I went back and listened to your first album from 1982, 'In Line.' Man, that was a completely singular event to have come out at that moment. And if it came out today, it would be as amazing and refreshing.
Wow. I haven't listened to that in so long.
Just the title track alone...there's layers of guitars, there's no discernible time, it's kind of rubato, but not. It's like a different language for the instrument, in a way. And that album introduces that tune “Throughout,” which you’ve played throughout your career and probably still do.
Oh, yeah. I feel like that was sort of the first thing that I ever wrote that was like an actual song, and it just came out in a couple seconds. I don’t know how that happened and I keep trying to get back to that. You know, something like that happens and you think, “It’s so easy to write a song.” But then, OK, try to write another one.
One thing that comes across on In Line, particularly on tunes like “Throughout” and “Smile On You”…there’s an undercurrent of melancholy in the melody where you’re dealing with minor-major elements. I wonder where that’s coming from. A lot of Americana pieces and folk tunes had those poignant minor key melodies.
Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s what I think people don’t get, but it’s such an obvious reference. Like, a few years later when I did that Nashville record and people said, “Oh, what’s this about?” But I didn’t just suddenly jump on that. That stuff was there way before Nashville. You know, it’s always been there. It wasn’t just some sudden shift or something. I mean, whatever that thing is, whatever you want to call it — heartland or Americana or whatever — it’s on my very first album, too, I think.
I’m interested to see how on your new album you do tunes that you had previously recorded on other albums, like, “Good Dog, Happy Man,” “Monroe" and “Lookout for Hope.” What is your attitude about approaching your own compositions that you had recorded before?
Well, that’s kind of this interesting thing about myself. As I get older, I keep discovering more and more about a tune, whether it’s a standard song that I learned a long time ago or one of my own. Like 50 years ago, when I first tried to play “The Days of Wine and Roses,” I played it a certain kind of way but then over time it keeps revealing more and more stuff. I was aware of that happening with standard tunes but what’s weird about getting older is I start seeing it happening with my own tunes. Like, if I come back to one of my own tunes that I haven’t played in a while, I’ll see it in a completely different way or I’ll notice things that are in it that I didn’t even know were there. And in this case, it makes it really thrilling for me to hear someone else play these old tunes of mine for the first time. I don’t know if these guys on Four (pianist Gerald Clayton, saxophonist Gregory Tardy, drummer Johnathan Blake) ever even heard those tunes before. I know Greg Hardy played “Monroe” before (on their brilliant 2019 duet album on Newvelle, More Than Enough), but just to hear someone else…what their take on it would be hearing it for the first time or playing it for the first time…it just brings a whole new life to it. Really, with anything I write, I don't have any big idea of what it's supposed to be. I just want it to be a beginning of some way to get us into playing some music together. And I want to be surprised and even startled sometimes by what they come up with. So it’s nice to just see what these guys have to say about it.
I’ve noticed that whether it’s you playing a standard or reinterpreting a tune of your own, you do this thing where you start to leave out parts of the melody or parts of the chord in the course of the song. And I don't know if that's intentional or planned out or it’s just your intuitive process. Like, rather than doing a Joe Pass approach where you're putting all of this information in on a given tune -- the bassline, the chords, the melody from start to finish, flawlessly executed -- you’re kind of picking and choosing a triad to maybe suggest or a chord or just part of a line to imply a harmonic shape. It’s an interesting less-is-more approach; Monkian, in a way. Jim Hall did that too. Where does that come from for you?
Well, probably in everything I do, there’s some sort of Jim Hall influence. But also Monk, I think about Monk every day. He’s the master of how you can stick with a melody and find infinite variety in that without leaving it, really. And that idea of leaving space…it’s like, you don’t have to say everything. But if the melody is really internalized in you, it never goes away but it becomes this springboard for all this other stuff. And there’s another thing about leaving space. You want to hear what someone else has to say about it. So you can play something and then let someone else have a have a say in it as well. You know, you can’t just keep pumping it out yourself. You have to leave room for other people to get a word in, too. Like with this new album, it’s more about these four people just having a conversation. It’s not like there’s a real soloist anywhere, it’s more just four people talking.
And in some cases, you leave the conversation entirely, like on “Always,” which is a solo piano showcase for Gerald Clayton.
Right, and that’s the way it would be if you’re sitting around with some people. You know, you're not, like, talking all the time. You sit there and you check out what somebody else has to say. And then maybe you get your own thing in there at some point.
When I first saw the album title, I assumed it was referring to the four of you who had gathered to play some music. But then I read in a press release that it a dedication to four souls that we lost that were close to you -- Hal Willner, Alan Woodard, Claude Utley and trumpeter Ron Miles, a longtime colleague and bandmate of yours who passed in March 2002 and who you dedicated the album to.
That wasn't intentional. And I wasn’t thinking about four people that died, it was just about the four of us conversing. And then the music happened. I didn’t even have the titles when we did the album. But all the new music was written during all that time when those people passed. So when it was time to put the titles on these songs, I was thinking about this person and that person, and they seemed to sort of fit. So that all kind of happened after the fact, not when we were in the studio recording the stuff. But it’s weird how there's still a truth to it because when the music was written, it was in the midst of these terrible things happening. It’s kind of far out the way this stuff works. Like just last night I played in Massachusetts with Kenny Wollesen and Thomas Morgan and we played some of those songs from Four. And so now when I play “Claude Utley,” an old friend of mine, it has this whole other weight to it, like I’m actually thinking about him when I’m playing the song now, even though we didn’t name it until after I wrote it and we recorded it. Same with “Waltz for Hal Willner.” Maybe at the moment of recording it for the first time I didn’t know what it was, but it adds more weight when I play it now and am thinking about Hal. He passed so quickly from COVID during the pandemic, within the first month or so. Such a shock there.
It’s a very lyrical and beautiful piece for him.
Actually, it’s an older thing that was part of this Allen Ginsberg “Kaddish” project that I did with Hal [which had its world premiere in 2012 at New York City's Park Avenue Armory]. And it was an almost nursery rhyme song that appeared in this piece we did. Somehow that kept coming back and I kept thinking about Hal with that one.
You had a long history with Hal, going back to his 1981 Nino Rota tribute record, 'Amarcord Nino Rota,' and continuing through other recordings he produced with Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson and David Sanborn that you play on. Hal also produced your 2004 album Unspeakable, and he encouraged you to write the music that musical theater piece that he produced, 2012’s 'The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,' but he told you not play guitar on it.
Right. That was the first time he asked me to write music and he said, “I don’t want you to play, I want you to just write the music.” And again, that was like Hal acknowledging that I could write music. It seemed like everything I did with him he would present me with some opportunity, but it was like something that I didn't even realize that I could do myself. I always felt like, “How am I going to do that? What do you mean? How can I do this?” And he would sort of just push me through the door and I’d have to deal with it. It was always like that with Hal. He knew more than I did what I was capable of. You know, he trusted me like crazy, from the very first meeting with him in 1980 when no one knew who I was. I met him and he asked me to play on that Nino Rota tribute record. He didn’t know me, he just had a feeling or something about me.
Another person who recently passed recently [Nov. 16, 2022] is the great guitarist Mick Goodrick. I know he made a big impression on during your Berklee years. Did you study with him?
People say that I did, but I actually never studied with him. But he was just massively huge for me. Before I ever attended Berklee, I went there to visit around 1970 or ’71. I went just to see what it looked like, and I remember there was a student concert going on there at the time with Charlie Mariano, Abraham Laboriel and Mick was playing guitar. That was the first time I ever heard of him. He must have been teaching there by that time ‘cause I think he was a student there in the late ‘60s. But that was where I first heard him, and it was like, “Whoa! What is going on!” You know, it was like this sort of liquefied sound that I had never heard before. And then it was very soon after that Gary Burton’s quartet record came out [1973’s The New Quartet on ECM]. That was really where I first heard Mick on record. And then a few years later, when I went to Berklee, he was like this kind of mystical figure with his beard and everything. I was afraid to talk to him. I would see him walk by and I’d freeze up. I remember one time in Harvard Square I saw him just walking across and it was like, “Oh, my God, there goes Mick Goodrick!” And I’d never talk to him. Then one time I had this gig at a place called Michaels, where I played a lot with Mike Stern. And so I’m playing in there...this would be like 1976 or something like that. There’s like five people in the audience and I'm playing “All the Things You Are” or some standard, and Mick comes in, he takes a chair and he sits like three feet away from me. And this is when he had that big beard, you know. Very intimidating. So he sits down right in front of me and he’s just sitting there smoking cigarettes, just staring at me playing, and I’m just shitting in my pants. And for the whole set he just sat right in front of me, smoking cigarettes, checking me out. Then he got up and just walked away. He never said anything. And I was like, “Fuck!” He remained this kind of really mystical presence to me at Berklee. And I would go see him play with Gary Burton and I saw him and Pat Metheny playing duo. Just mind blowing. And then finally, probably the late ‘70s, I actually met him and we did these gigs in New Hampshire. It was a bass player’s gig and Mick and I would drive together from Boston up to New Hampshire, just me and Mick in the car. And that was just incredible, just to get to hang out with him. And then we did a few gigs, just two guitars and bass, and that’s when we kind of really became friends. Then he started to play with Paul Motian and with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. Paul Motian introduced me to Charlie Haden when he was putting together the Liberation Music Orchestra. He brought me to a rehearsal with Carla Bley and Charlie and Steve Slagle. It just was to suss me out, I guess. And then I actually got the gig with the Liberation Music Orchestra but I was playing with Jan Garbarek at the time so I couldn’t do it. So that’s when Mick started playing with the Liberation Music Orchestra. Later on I did some other gigs with them in New York when Mick couldn’t make it. Mick was on the recordings and did most of the touring, but I got to play with Liberation Music Orchestra at Seventh Avenue South and also a week at Sweet Basil. And I eventually I became friends with him. But Mick was just a huge inspiration in so many ways.
Talking about 'Four' again, I was thinking about the wordplay on the title of your 1987 album, 'Lookout For Hope.' The first time around, I read it like a cynical alert: “Oh, look out for hope!” But this time, I see it more as being a lookout or scout for hope. It takes on an entirely different connotation. Rather than a cynical warning, it's a positive declaration, like actively searching for hope in the universe.
Yeah. That’s the way I always thought about it. I actually stole it from a Robert Frank photograph, a sort of a blurred image that he just scraped into the negative with a marker “Lookout for hope.” That’s where I originally got that from. And it’s one of those tunes that I kept coming back to. That’s one that I felt like I never quite got quite right. When I first recorded it on my first band record with Kermit (Driscoll) and Joey (Baron) -- 1991’s LIVE -- the actual form of it was kind of complex, in a way. There were some things that I had written that seem slightly unnecessary or something. There was something in the form that was kind of odd and sort of awkward, so we didn't really play it live very much. And then a number of years later, when I did that album with Viktor Krauss and Jim Keltner [1998’s Gone, Just Like a Train], I did it again and I just completely dispensed with this whole counter line that was underneath it. And Viktor came up with this kind of vamp that I just played the melody over. And that super simplified it and opened it wide open and just made it easier to just play. But then I felt like I missed some of what I had originally written. So finally now, 35 years since I wrote that tune, I feel like I finally got it straight the way I wanted. It sort of solidified into this form that we’re playing it on this new record. Basically, I took parts of what I had originally written for that first album and sort of refined them into an actual form that I like, finally.
So these tunes of yours are all essentially works in progress?
Yeah, they just keep on going. But it took that long before I felt like that tune got solid the way I wanted it to be.
“Monroe” is one that you’ve recorded many times in different situations. That version you did with Paul Motian and Ron Carter on your self-titled recording from 2006 is more loping and syncopated than your upbeat bluegrass waltz version from 1999’s 'Good Dog, Happy Man' or your rubato, chamber-like version from 2008’s 'History, Mystery.' So you keep reinventing your own stuff.
Wow, I didn’t realize that I’ve done “Monroe” that many times. That tune also felt like it was not finished, in a way. There’s a few of them where the tune is just there and I can just play it. “Lookout for Hope” was more of this struggle over all this time before I finally felt like I got it.
It’s like “Days of Wine and Roses.” You probably do that Henry Mancini tune differently on every gig you’ve played.
I hope so. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
And each time you play it, you leave out stuff and it makes it a little more mysterious. I saw a video interview with you and John Schaeffer from the 2002 New York Guitar Festival where you said, “Every note you play is like a question." That’s a really interesting way to think about it. So in essence, you’re doing call-and-response with yourself.
Yeah, yeah, I really believe that. It’s like on a microscopic scale and on a macro scale. On literally one note...if you take your instrument and just hit one string, it’s like, “OK, what are you going to do next?” You know, it will lead you to something else somehow. And it’s the same thing even with a song. Like, you learn one song and it’ll lead to something else. Just now when we were talking about “Days of Wine and Roses” I started thinking about Henry Mancini’s other great tune, “Moon River.” It’s like they keep talking to each other somehow. It’s like a phrase. You play a phrase or play a little bit of a melody, it is like a conversation. Even with yourself it’s a conversation. You play those first couple of notes on “Days of Wine and Roses,” that’s a question. And then you answer that question, and it starts snowballing. It’s that question and answer thing, I guess.
So the question could be, “The days,” and the answer could either be, "Of wine and roses,” or just, “Roses.”
Yeah! Or just blank. Like, the answer could be: “I don’t know.” Or then think of something else.
And isn’t that what Thelonious Monk did? He left out a lot of notes playing “Sweet Lorraine” or “Sweet and Lovely” or “Dinah.” When he was playing any standard, especially solo, he really was having a call-and-response with himself.
Yeah. With him, I started noticing how leaving out notes of a chord is like a huge thing. That happened with Monk. I’m always learning from him. It’s like he’s constantly giving you a lesson or something. A few years ago, I was playing his tune “Well You Needn’t" and I kept finding all these little details in it that I hadn’t noticed before. You know, I’d find new things and I thought, “Oh, finally I got it! I got all the things all straight.” And then -- this is super nerdy stuff -- but on the bridge, what I thought was a Db7th chord (Db, F, Ab, Cb, and then Eb on the top, like a Db9th chord -- that’s what everybody plays and all my schooling tells me that. But if you play a C9th chord, like C, E, G, Bb, and then D on the top, and there’s this series of those chords in that song. And I thought, “OK, now I got everything all straight on the bridge and it’s got these ninth chords, right?” So finally, I’m finished, I learned this song, I got everything totally together. And then I find this Blindfold Test with Monk from Downbeat where they played him other people playing his songs. And so that chord in question...I think it was Phineas Newborn playing the song...and he goes, “No, no, you can’t play it that way. That chord doesn’t have a seventh in it. It shouldn't have a seventh!” So I would think it’s C, E, G, Bb, D, but he says it’s gotta be C, E, G, D. So you leave out that one note and it's like, holy shit! It sounds totally different. In Berklee or whatever school you might be in, it’s just this thing about stacking everything up from the bottom to the top, like a pile of books or something. You just keep stacking the notes on top of each other. But if you start taking away some of the notes in the middle, it’s like all these other things start happening. A lot of guitar books you may study, it’s about, “How can you make this gigantic six-note chord?” or whatever it is. And there’s so much information in that. Again, I guess go back to Jim Hall. He played a different way, where you try to pick out a couple notes within that whole rainbow of possibilities, and then it starts to set up a whole other rainbow, just with one or two notes. Or take Monk. He’s just a master of the idea of you play the root of the chord and one or two other notes that can say so much. And that’s what makes Monk sort of almost possible on the guitar. It’s not like he’s playing all ten fingers on the piano, which kind of wipes out what you can do on the guitar. He makes it so that you can actually play what he played. He played a low A, then he played a C# on a D#, and I can actually do that on the guitar.
I’ve seen Jim Hall do that as well. Just playing simple triads rather than trying to do full barre chords with all kinds of intricate voicings in there.
Yeah, totally. And it leaves more room for other people to get their word in there, too.
I also like how you will be playing a tune -- and maybe is more evident when you’re playing solo, like on 2018’s 'Music IS,' or with Thomas Morgan in duo situations like on 2017’s 'Small Town' and 2019’s 'Epistrophy' -- and you’ll be jumping back and forth between filling in part of a bass line then just alluding to the chords or a piece of the melody. It’s not like a Joe Pass approach, where you’re putting all this dense information in at the same time but rather dropping into these hints or suggestions of the bass line, chords and melody. It’s a very intricate juggling act.
I mean, part of that is from just my limitations technically, too. It’s like…if I could, maybe I would stick all the Joe Pass stuff in there. But I can’t really do it, so I just try to make little stabs at it. We all deal with our limitations. I can’t actually physically play everything that I wish I could, but I’m going to just imply it or try to take a stab at something that hits close to home or something.
I guess the comparison would be Oscar Peterson, where he’s just playing the shit out of the piano on every tune. It’s so burning, so much information. And then to go from that to Monk, where he’s leaving so much, just playing fragments at times.
Again, I wish I could do all of that Joe Pass stuff. I remember one time I heard John McLaughlin live in the mid ‘70s with Shakti and I almost quit playing. Now, I loved John McLaughlin. He’s just a huge hero to me, right? But I had this moment of thinking, “There's no way,! I give up. I can’t. It’s too much. There’s no way I could ever do this." And it was a terrible moment. But then a few minutes later I was like, “Well, fuck it! Whatever it is I can do, I’ll just try to do it anyway.” So I sort of gave up trying to play like John McLaughlin and I said, “OK, I'm going to just try to do the best I can do with whatever little bit I’ve got.” It sort of got me back going again.
There’s quite a bit of room in between Jimmy Dodd and John McLaughlin.
(Laughs). Yeah! And there's so many ways to express yourself. I mean, Robert Johnson couldn’t play like Segovia. And they’re both about as heavy music as you could possibly imagine. That’s what's so incredible about the guitar. When you think about it, Segovia and Robert Johnson and John McLaughlin and Derek Bailey are all playing the same instrument, tuned the same way. It’s like, “What?!!” But everyone has their own personal way of doing it.
Yeah! Every time I hear him, it’s the same thing. It’s like, “Oh my God, what is going on here?” Like, wow!
You saw Jimi in concert, didn’t you?
Yeah, I saw him twice. The first time was in a gymnasium kind of room at a college. It wasn’t the tour he did with the Monkees, it must have been like his second tour or something in the States. Soft Machine was opening for him. But it was so radical. That first record [Are You Experienced, 1967] had just come out and I didn’t know what was happening. It was just so completely shocking! A recording of that gig that I saw on February 14, 1968 at Regis College in Denver is actually available on YouTube. I don’t even know if they had much of a PA; you’re just hearing the amps coming off the stage, basically. And just the whole combination of the way he sang with the guitar and the massiveness of the sound...it was just too much to comprehend, for sure.
Then I saw him like a year later at Red Rocks amphitheater in Denver. I think it might have been the last gig that he did with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. There was something going on, I remember, like he wasn’t happy or something about the gig. But it sounded amazing to me. And then by the time my parents had moved to New Jersey and I was going to school in Greeley, Colorado, I came to visit them during Christmas break and ended up going to the Fillmore East in New York City to see Blood, Sweat & Tears [on Dec. 28, 1969]. And the amazing thing was some unknown band was opening that night for Blood, Sweat & Tears called the Allman Brothers Band. This was before they had recorded anything. They came out and were like, “Oh hi, we're kind of nervous.” It was their Fillmore East debut and they just fuckin’ kicked ass! It was just a few days before Jimi’s Band of Gypsys played the New Year’s Eve concert there that became the famous live album from the Fillmore East. I remember noticing on the Fillmore marquee it said: Jimi Hendrix, Dec. 31. And I’m thinking, “Oh, I already saw him. I don't need this.” Man, I wish I had gone to that!
You told me once of another eye-opening guitar encounter you had at Red Rocks during the summer of 1968 when you saw Larry Coryell with Gary Burton’s band.
Yeah, that was just another amazing experience. The main reason I was going to that show was because I had just discovered Wes Montgomery and my father got us tickets to see him. It was a Newport Jazz Festival touring package with Wes, Cannonball Adderley’s group, Thelonious Monk’s quartet and Gary Burton’s band with Larry Coryell, Bob Moses and Steve Swallow. Wes was on the bill and then he died right before the gig [on June 15, 1968], but we went anyway. So I did see Monk. But again, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know who these people were, really. I had just been listening to Wes Montgomery and then hearing Coryell after having heard Jimi Hendrix just a few months before that too! Talk about having your brain exploding.
When Coryell came to New York from Seattle, which is Hendrix’s home town, he was playing a Gibson Super 400 and was intent on becoming the next Wes Montgomery.
Right. He was playing a Super 400 with a DeArmond pickup on it, and he was getting it feedback and everything. I remember at one point during his solo, he walked back to his amp and just sort of rolled the volume knob on it with his forearm. It was so loud and wild!
And then the following year, Coryell played alongside guitarist Sonny Sharrock on Herbie Mann’s 1969 album, 'Memphis Underground.'
Yeah! I was totally into that record, too. And I saw that band live. They came to Greeley, Colorado, where I was going to college. Miroslav Vitous was playing electric bass. This was when he first came to the States. And Roy Ayers was playing vibes in that band too. You can see them for a moment in that recent documentary, Summer of Soul. That movie just killed me. That was the summer after I graduated from high school. And I can’t believe I was actually in New York at that time and didn’t even know that that was going on. I mean, I knew all that music from high school but I didn’t even know about that festival happening. I was thinking about Woodstock. That summer of ’69 was when my parents moved to New Jersey and I stayed with them that summer. And that’s the first summer I went to the Village Vanguard, in August of ’69. And I remember thinking, “Oh, there’s some rock festival happening upstate, but there’s too many people. I’m not going to go up there.” I always regretted that too, that I didn’t go to Woodstock.
I wonder if you were at all interested in Johnny Winter at that time. His self-titled debut on Columbia had come out in April of 1969.
Oh, I saw him that same summer before my parents moved to New Jersey. It was like literally the day before my parents left Denver. This was the Denver Pop Festival at Mile High Stadium. It was a three-day event (June 27-June 29, 1969). Hendrix played there on the last night but I didn’t see him. He played the day after I was there. But I did see Johnny Winter, Creedence Clearwater and Poco. Anyway, that’s where I saw Johnny Winter and that blew my mind. He killed me. And that was also the first time I tasted tear gas. At the same time the concert was going on there were people breaking down the barriers and trying to get in for free. Cops were throwing tear gas all over the place, but the concert was still going on while all that was happening.
We’re coming up soon on the 40th anniversary of 'Smash & Scatteration,' that album you did with Vernon Reid back in 1984.
Oh, my God. How is that possible? Amazing!
Both of you played guitar synths on that project. You also played one on the Paul Motian album from that same year, 'It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago.' A lot of people were experimenting with guitar synths at the time, including Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth and John Abercrombie.
Yeah, we were kind of just going crazy with whatever this new stuff was. And with Vernon, we were also playing around with drum machines and all that stuff, probably a DMX or something. I haven’t listened to that probably since it came out. I should just see what it sounds like. I think I would be scared to hear it now.
photo by David Breskin
You’ve had a longstanding musical relationship with John Zorn going back to 1985’s 'The Big Gundown' and continuing through your recordings with Naked City in the early ‘90s and more recently through a series of recordings on Zorn’s Tzadik label with the Gnostic Trio (with harpist Carol Emmanuel and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen) and several guitar trio recordings with Julian Lage and Gyan Riley. It’s been an incredibly productive partnership. How did you meet Zorn?
I met him at when he was working at the SoHo Music Gallery. Tim Berne introduced me to him. I had heard about him but I didn’t really know what he did. I came into the record shop looking for a new King Sunny Ade record and Zorn said, “Oh no, you don’t want that. You got to get this Ebenezer Obey record instead.” And then I thought, “Wow, this guy’s like an African music scholar.” I just thought he only knew about African music, right? I didn’t realize he knew about every possible music that ever existed. But then I went to hear one of his pieces and I just completely freaked out, like, “What the hell is going on here?” And then by then we’d already kind of connected so he invited me to play on his piece “Track & Field” [which premiered at the Public Theater on Nov. 7, 1982]. And at the rehearsal to just sort of to talk through the piece, there was Robin Holcomb, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, Anthony Coleman, Arto Lindsay. In one day I met all those guys for the first time, and so that was sort of the beginning of my involvement in that whole downtown music scene. So then we started doing a lot of gigs together at little places like Chandelier, 8BC and The Saint, that little space that Zorn had in his building. And that led to those recordings like Godard, Spillane and The Big Gundown and eventually to the band Naked City.
You played with Quine on a couple of those Zorn projects, right?
Yeah, and what’s funny is, the guitar that I’ve been playing the last few months is one of his guitars. It’s a blue Telecaster. The last time I played with him at his apartment on St. Marks, he showed me this guitar and we kind of jammed around a little bit. And then after he died, I went into Rick Kelly’s [Carmine Street Guitars] and that guitar was in there, and I bought it. That’s the guitar I’ve been playing the last few months, this blue Telecaster. I played that Quine guitar for a whole tour of Europe and then I played it with Charles Lloyd in San Francisco. It’s a great guitar. It’s so weird, all these connections.