Bill Frisell is racking his brains. Sat in a hotel room in Minneapolis, one of America’s most versatile guitarists, composers and arrangers is trying to remember what his string quartet performed the last time they toured.
“Oh God,” he sighs, “I’m getting so confused with the time, if it was a year ago or two years. It’s one of those I want to pick up where we left off but then I’ve also added a lot more music that I’m bringing.”
It is, he says, “impossible to say at this point” exactly what the quartet – who as well as Frisell comprise violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts – might play on their visit to the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on Saturday.
“We’re also in the midst of moving and I have these piles of music, I’ve been pretty good about keeping them organised in filers. With the string group it started something like 15 years ago with the [Richter] 858 project and each time we play it develops into a new folder of music.”
One thing they are likely to include is music from the soundtrack to Electricity, a film directed by Bill Morrison, with whom Frisell has collaborated a number of times before. “Like a lot of his films, he’ll gather archival footage and then edit it together,” the guitarist says. “For this one they were educational films, mostly from the 50s or maybe early 60s, films they would show in a school to explain how electricity works. It’ll have a schematic design of little things moving around the screen, a lot of strange-looking animation, then also there’ll be some footage of a factory sending out little parts of things, repetitive-looking things, it’s very abstract. That’s the most recent thing we did; it was a recording but I’d definitely like to use some of that music.”
The vastness of Frisell’s recorded work certainly makes his own oeuvre difficult to pin down. To date, the Baltimore-born guitarist has appeared on more than 200 albums, including recordings by jazz artists Paul Motian and Jan Garbarek, the avant-garde composer John Zorn, the blues musician Bonnie Raitt, country singer songwriter Lucinda Williams and stars of rock and pop such as Elvis Costello, David Sylvian and Ginger Baker.
Fitting it all in is sometimes a problem, he admits. “Especially in the last few years it’s been really extreme, running from one thing to another, which is great, but I’m 66 years old and I can feel it more than I used to. It’s not the playing, it’s when I have to travel and stuff, it’s not so easy all the time. But I just get so much energy from playing and also mentally I really feel like when I’m in the midst of the music that’s where I’m really my true self and that’s where I feel at home.
“As the world gets crazier and crazier around us I don’t know if that’s cheating but the music sure is a good place to be. It’s selfish too but hopefully if someone’s listening to it maybe it can get them out of whatever mess we’re in for a minute, just as a breather.”
Although Frisell has performed in many diverse styles, he believes jazz has always been at the root of his guitar-playing. “I don’t think of jazz as a style, it’s more a way of thinking about the music. When I discovered jazz what I was seeing was here’s a place where anything is possible. It’s not that there’s no rules, you can do what you want with the rules. You learn the rules and then you can turn them upside down or you can figure out your own rules. I think the thing about it was that it didn’t have to be a style. That way of thinking has informed everything I do.
“Of course there’s all the jazz greats that I’ve mimicked or been inspired by – Theolonius Monk or Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, all those people – but I love and have heard all kinds of music my whole life and it’s a place where it can all be included.”
He finds it hard to pinpoint specific albums that have given him most satisfaction to work on. “Every time I record it’s like I’m hoping for something,” he says. “You can describe really every time I play the feeling of not quite getting all the way there; with music it’s sort of like that. From moment to moment or year to year you can never finish it, so there’s something a little strange about recording because you’re stopping, it’s like you’re taking a picture of this thing that’s always changing. It’s like you’re freezing that moment but in a way it amplifies what you haven’t been able to do. You have to be comfortable and say ‘OK, that’s as good as I can get right now’.
“What I’m getting at is though I’ve done all these records it’s not really healthy to dwell on them. I don’t really listen to anything once it’s [done]. I work hard during the time I’m working on it and I’ll do the best I can do but then I move on. It’s almost like it’s one giant ongoing [thing], I think of it more like that than individual pieces.
“I’m so lucky to basically always have this opportunity ahead of me that I’m fairly certain that I’ll be able to do another one sometime off in the future. In that way it just feels like one long, continuous, giant piece of music.”
Frisell is the subject of a new documentary film by the musician Emma Franz.
“With that again it’s just why me?” he says self-effacingly. “I was really happy that she was trying to show the process that a musician or an artist goes through. She was really getting at something that’s not always shown, I think. In that way it didn’t have to be me, it could be somebody else.
“But it was embarrassing watching myself trying to talk all the time. Whenever I do a class or get called to come into a school to talk to young musicians I don’t feel like I’m in any position [to advise}. With music, everyone’s in the same position trying to figure it out. I feel like I’m starting over every day, beginning. That’s why I don’t feel like I’m in some position of being a big expert.”
The Bill Frisell String Quartet play at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on November 4. billfrisell.com