Guitar Talk: In Conversation With Legendary Guitarist Bill Frisell
The mid-1970s gave rise to four guitarists who have dominated the jazz landscape for 40 years: Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Mike Stern, and Bill Frisell. Frisell’s sound often seemed attainable to the average acolyte. He does not play particularly fast; many of his tunes have soft edges, straight-ahead time signatures, graspable forms. But beware the illusion. Like Jim Hall, he makes it look easy, and it is most assuredly not. Frisell (b. 1951) has something of the magician about him. He underplays everything, his notes a haiku. His elastic tone contains celebration and mourning at the same time.
He makes a hard tune sound simple. People who play with him often say something like, “He always makes things better.”
I myself, naive devotee that I was, once went up to the old Yoshi’s stage in Oakland after Bill performed in the late 80s with his first quartet. I made note of every pedal, and slowly purchased each one. Do I need to say it? Once it was all plugged in, I didn’t sound like Bill Frisell.
In 2018 Bill invited four guitarists to join him on stage for the Summit: Matt Munisteri, Julian Lage, Marvin SeWell, and Brandon Ross. It was an incredible night. The next day he did a master class, which ended up being a conversation, too (hence the references, in what follows, to the playing Bill did to illustrate his comments). It was illuminating to get some clarity on Bill’s path. Like most great players, he devoted himself from an early age to the fundamentals of all forms of American music. He seems to live in a perpetual state of wonder, fascinated with possibility, curious to the core.
He is a fan of all music, so he has played with an enormous variety of artists, from John Zorn to Bonnie Raitt, Elvin Jones to Elvis Costello, bluegrass picker Bryan Sutton to Paul Motian. He blends his broad influences into an instantly recognizable signature, where jazz, blues, country, rock and roll, and experimentalism all take turns sharing leading and supporting roles. He seems able to disappear into any musical setting, and yet be entirely present.
Joel Harrison: I was telling people at the concert that you gave Thursday night that the first time I saw you was in 1977, when you played duo at Pooh’s Pub in Boston with Randy Roos. I was the only person in the audience.
Bill Frisell: I remember playing with Randy Roos. We did a few gigs and I played in his band also at that time.
JH: I had the opportunity to have one of these conversations with Pat Metheny last year, and one of the things we talked about was how formative the seventies were in Boston regarding guitar players. Tell us how that time formed you. I look back on those years often, when Metheny, Mike Stern, you, and John Scofield all came through.
BF: Yeah. When you did the tribute concert for Pat… I hadn’t thought about it, but it brought it all to the forefront of my memory. I graduated high school in 1969, right? And my parents moved from Colorado to New Jersey that summer. So I came with them and that was the first time I ever went to the Village Vanguard. The year before that I went to my first jazz concert and I saw Gary Burton’s band, and I saw Thelonious Monk, and I saw Cannonball Adderley, and a couple of months after that I saw Charles Lloyd play. This is when I’m still in high school. And so all this stuff is happening. You know, I’m just discovering all this music, I was playing in high school in a kind of…
I don’t know what the proper label is, kind of an R&B funk band, the Soul Merchants.
JH: You played in an R&B band called the Soul Merchants? Before you leave today, I want to hear some funk.
BF: No, no man. I swear to God it’s in everything I play, the funk is in there.
Just listen. My classmates were, starting in junior high — well, it sounds like I’m bragging, but it’s kind of cool — Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk.
JH: Are you kidding?
BF: They were in Earth, Wind & Fire. But then we were in rival bands, and now I can brag because there was this battle of the bands and my band played and they played and they were badass. They were so good. They freaked me out they were so good. But we won the battle of the bands. So the prize was — it was incredible — we got to play at a big theater downtown just packed with kids.
JH: Like what kind of cover tunes did you do?
BF: Well we played, you know, Temptations… I’ve told this story so many times, but actually the song, and I just played it a couple of days ago, that changed my life in high school was in this talent show. I was playing clarinet in the concert band, and the band director for the talent show arranged for these girls to do a dance routine to a Wes Montgomery song. And the band director said — this is fall of 1967 — “You play guitar, right? Do you think you could learn this song?” So he gives me this Wes Montgomery record. And luckily that song has one chord, basically.
JH: Which song?
BF: “Bumpin’ on Sunset.” So I tried to learn that for the talent show and I got my friends, a bass player and a drummer, and we did it and the girls did this dance thing. And we were the hit of the school, the audience went crazy. We sort of became the rhythm section. And first there was Chauncey Blakely, so it was Chauncey and The Untouchables, and we’d play, and he’d do all this dance stuff. But you know what I’m saying? Like 1968? I think about that year and what was happening. This is going to be like some sort of psychological tale, that’s such a part of what the music is for me, you know…
JH: You mean the politics of the time? And all the revolution in the air?
BF: I was so lucky, I mean — Denver, Colorado, right? Growing up in the 50s and 60s that town was kind of segregated, racially and economically.
But where I went to school everyone was all together, and so I realized much later how lucky I was. I just took that for granted. I just thought, oh Well, we can all be together and we all play music together. I thought that was normal — that the world is kind of messed up, but we’re working through this and know we’re taking it somewhere. [Pauses] Sixty-eight was rough. That was like a big blow. So much of the music was about us being together and the community of musicians that I was with supporting each other and playing together and all that. I’m trying to get up to 1975, but I keep getting stuck back there.
JH: But can I just pause in ’68, because your sense of time and groove is so strong, but to try to find the right words for it, I think it’s embedded in a somewhat invisible way in your playing because nobody associates you with playing James Brown or the more obvious funky, groovy thing.
BF: Come on! [Laughs]
JH: But where I’m going is that one of the reasons your sense of time is so strong, from what you’re saying, is this whole era of R&B you were in. Can you play a bit of “Bumpin’ on Sunset”?
BF: With reissues of “Bumpin’ On Sunset” I realized there’s all these alternate takes, and when you hear all the alternates, you see he just made that [song] up on the spot. Like every take he plays these perfectly formed eight-bar or sixteen-bar phrases, a sort of a statement and an answer and a statement and answer. And when you hear the alternate takes, you hear that. And then I started listening to the way he’ll play a standard song. It’s like sentences, and questions and answers. That was so important, just hearing that record. And then he was going to come to town to play, and my dad got us tickets and we were going to go, it was this big concert — and he passed away just weeks before the gig. But we said, Well, let’s go anyway. I don’t know who any of these other people are. Thelonious Monk, who’s that? Cannonball Adderley, I don’t know who they are. They don’t play guitar. And there was Gary Burton with Larry Coryell, and I was like, oh my God, what is happening now? And then a couple of months after that I bought a Downbeat magazine, my first Downbeat magazine, and it had Charles Lloyd on the cover, and I thought, wow, that guy looks so cool, look at that, got those glasses. And so then Charles Lloyd is coming to town, so let’s go see what that sounds like.
And we go there and there’s this little guy playing piano, Keith Jarrett. And the drummer was Paul Motian. So that’s January, 1969.
JH: So your entire destiny was in that one concert.
BF: It was. Well, it’s unbelievable when I think about it, I gotta be dreaming or something, you know, to think that some years later I’d be actually meet these people. So I go buy Keith’s record, with Paul Motian playing drums and Charlie Haden playing bass. “Somewhere Before,” this album is called.
And I’m listening to that, and they’re playing a Bob Dylan song, and it’s the blueprint for everything. When I heard Wes Montgomery, I thought it was like, oh man, I gotta figure out all these chords. I found a guitar teacher by some miracle, this man named Dale Bruning who had moved to Colorado from Philadelphia where he was a student of Dennis Sandole, you know, who taught John Coltrane and Pat Martino. He was the one that introduced me to Jim Hall. And so that’s as big as you can get.
My world was opening up. I went to Boston once and I hated it. I left and I went back to Colorado with my tail between my legs and moped around and taught in a music store and practiced a lot. Then I came back to Boston in ’75. Okay. That’s when Pat was there. I was really starting to get this idea of what the guitar could do. I discovered all this bebop music and Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery and Sonny Rollins and Monk and I was deep into that.
But I was also listening to Paul Bley and Ornette [Coleman] and then I was thinking, man, there’s something that hasn’t been quite done on the guitar.
And I was getting an idea of what could happen. And then I get to Boston and somebody said, yeah, there’s this guy named Pat Metheny, and I think it was the first or second night I arrived — you know, I drove out of Colorado in my Volkswagen, got an apartment, signed up for school and then okay, there’s a little mimeographed sheet advertising Pat Metheny. I think Bob Moses was on drums. I went to see Pat and it was so disturbing because… it was like, Oh man, I thought that was my idea, shit! — you know, ’cause he was playing Paul Bley tunes and he was playing Ornette tunes and he was playing “All The Things You Are,” and he had it all. It was perfect. Pissed me off, boy.
JH: Supposedly Jeff Beck heard Led Zeppelin the first time and had the same reaction. He said those guys stole my idea, so I’m going to play instrumental music from now on because they’ve got this vocal thing covered… So your reaction then was to both to admire and learn from Pat, but also you had this other world that you continued to develop?
BF: Yeah, I mean, I think we all have our own sound. If we’re true to what that part of life is, it just comes out.
JH: I agree. But you really have a sound and I want to talk about that. You can pick up any guitar and make it sound like you right away, no matter what kind of guitar it is or how it’s set up or what amp there is. And I’m wondering how much of this was conscious for you, because 40 years ago you still sounded exactly like you do now. That’s magical to me. Is this conscious for you? Was it always there?
BF: I think there is a consciousness or an awareness that’s part of learning about the music. Sonny Rollins sounds like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane sounds like Coltrane. But I never knew how to do it. For me there’s a number of things, like being comfortable with what you like. There was a point when I stopped trying to be cool. I really do like that Burt Bacharach song.
I thought it was corny or something when I was younger, but in the back of my mind, God that sure is a beautiful song. Or not being afraid to show I grew up in Denver, Colorado in a sort of Leave It To Beaver atmosphere.
Not being afraid to show who you are. Don’t be afraid. Try to come as close as you can to playing what you love. I think our sound also comes from our limitations. I can’t play anywhere near what I wish I could play, but I’m going to try to come as close as I can. The will to try to make a sound. I mean, John McLaughlin was another during that time. I loved that — many things were hitting me, seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and then… But two years later I’m seeing Jimi Hendrix and then I’m seeing McLaughlin.
JH: All these people reinventing the instrument.
BF: It’s happening. Like bam, bam, bam, bam. Like in real time. And then Miles, with the first notes I heard of McLaughlin, on In a Silent Way, and then “Bitches Brew” comes out. But when I went to see Shakti [McLaughlin’s quartet], that was a moment when I almost stopped playing. I said, “No, I can’t! This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t even call myself a guitarist. I give up. I quit.” But then about 30 seconds later I said, “Well now, I want to just keep trying anyway. I’m just going to do what I can do with what I got.”
JH: But did you ever go through a phase where you were trying to play super fast? ’Cause on some of your earliest work you’re really kind of shredding.
[Frisell nods assertively.] Was there a certain point where you said, this isn’t me?
BF: No, it never felt like… Other people said, “Wow, you sound like something.” It would always be coming from the outside is what I mean. You know, because still, all I’m doing is trying to imitate stuff.
BF: Well, I don’t know. No, maybe that’s not right. I guess things just get deeper, and then it becomes more like you’re just singing.
JH: You’ve delved into a deep body of American literature. I consider you to kind of be the American poet laureate of songs because you’ve played so many different types of songs from different backgrounds, which to me also, growing up, seemed to be the only way to go. I always related to that. When you mentioned Bob Dylan and Thelonious Monk, whose music you’ve embodied in really deep and beautiful ways, can you play a little and show us where that connection is in you?
BF: I don’t know how to even, it’s so subtle. I found out later a lot of those Columbia records were all recorded in the same studio. In the same room.
Bob Dylan and Miles’ band with Ron Carter and Tony Williams and Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie [Hancock]. I can’t even explain how that sounded.
Yeah, they were in that same room.
JH: But I think Dylan and Monk would have gotten along in a weird way if they’d ever met.
BF: They might’ve met, too. I know Dylan talked about how he met Cecil Taylor. I know Charlie Parker appreciated Hank Williams — I heard some rumor about him even playing with him. I love the idea because I could totally hear it.
JH: The way you play can feel like floating on a cloud, like a beautiful dream, and yet underneath there’s this engine moving where the time is really solid, which is true of Monk too. Even when he played rubato you felt this incredible anchor.
BF: When I first heard him, I thought I was hearing, like you said, rubato when he was playing alone. It’s so amazing, his time is outrageous. It’s interesting about sound… Mike Stern and I spent many hours playing together, trying to play tunes, and we don’t sound at all alike. I love that. Like a lot of my closest — what did Charlie Parker say? Worthy constituents? A lot of guys that I play with, friends of mine, or maybe we came up the same way, we’re the same age, we listened to the same music, but what ends up coming out is so different. I’m pretty much the same age as John Scofield and you know, we don’t [sound the same]. We listened to all the same stuff. It somehow comes out different.
JH: One of the most interesting things about your playing is how you accompany yourself, playing in a duo or trio situation where you are responsible for chords as well as melody. Can you play a solo version of a standard and talk a little bit about the mechanics? I think a lot of people wonder “When do I play the chord, and when do I play the melody, and when do I play them together?” On guitar it’s hard. Piano is so much easier that way.
BF: [Plays Dylan’s “Masters of War.”] I always talk about the melody, like what I just played… it takes me a long time. I used to be able to memorize stuff faster than I do now. I notice how long it takes me to internalize a melody. I mean, that’s the key, I think, if the melody is so deep, the rhythm too, being somehow back there, deep in there… What I just played, it’s a simple melody that I think he took from some old Irish tune or one of those murder ballads.
I remember when I first started to play that tune, I’d always get the comment, “Oh, it’s just one chord.” I hate that, when people say it’s only one chord, it’s only two. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, you know? It’s a pentatonic scale, that’s easy. But to really get it so that the phrases are — and it’s still really difficult for me — the key is to play the tune and keep it intact. So I think what you’re talking about is when the melody gets deep enough, then it starts sprouting these other branches or, you know, some kind of an answer. It’s like a statement. There’ll be a question and answer sort of thing. But if that melody is really there, then you can start hanging stuff on it. It’s kind of like branches of a tree start shooting off of it.
JH: Well, it’s an elemental form of counterpoint, and then gradually that leads to being able to do two lines simultaneously?
BF: Yeah — I was just playing the melody on the first string. So it left the other strings so I could play other stuff on the lower strings.
JH: Your command of harmony is pretty deep. I remember years ago I felt like you were one of the first people to play two-note dissonant — for lack of a better term, “Monkish” — chords on tunes, and I’m wondering just how you came to your sense of chord voicings, which are really a big part of your sound.
BF: Well, that was really a lot Jim Hall. I took some lessons with him and he really helped me to break out of all these books. I was playing inversions of full chords up and down the neck. But Jim had me… Well, again, like playing that “Masters of War” on one string. Jim would have me [plays guitar] thinking more like up and down this way, harmonizing scales, picking different intervals. And it helped me see smaller groupings of notes. Jim gets it down to the absolute essence of the most powerful notes.
JH: Your economy is legendary. Guitar players are not exactly known for economy. Many players are conditioned to feel that we need to play faster and louder. Can you talk a little bit about this sense of understatement, which I think is at the heart of your playing?
BF: Well I mean that’s maybe easier said than done. Or, the answer is simple — it’s just to listen. I was reminded of this John Cage quote from speech that he gave to his high school class. He said he wished that everyone could stop everything. Stop for one day. Let the whole world just stop and just listen to each other. How about that? Could we do that for a second?
You can’t be thinking when you’re playing. There’s too much going on in the music; if you’re thinking it just gets in the way. Sometimes it’s just a visual thing. It helps if I look at the other guys. You know it’s a huge thing just to try to get my attention away [from myself]. Don’t think about what you’re doing, think about what everybody else is doing and you’ll be sucked into it. And that’s the most amazing feeling — when everybody in the band is not worried about what they’re doing, they’re worried about the whole thing. And if everybody’s attention is on everybody else, that’s where the music lifts off.
JH: You’ve played super-out free improv, and also played the most gorgeous, innocent melodies. And I’m wondering if the process for you is always the same — you’re just showing up to make the music better?
BF: I think it is the same. Yeah. That’s what I don’t change. I’ve been lucky to get to play in so many different situations, with all kinds of different people and I don’t really like when people say, “Wow, how can you play so many different kinds of music,” or whatever. I’m just doing the same thing, I’m using the same instincts. I’m not changing anything that I’m doing.
JH: Earlier on, when I first saw you, you used to step on a distortion box a lot more than you do now. You were one of the first people I heard play a jazz tune and go from a lovely tone to screaming distortion. You had the guitar synthesizer that had this sustained overdriven sound that was kind of shocking in a very pleasant way.
BF: I remember I went to see John Abercrombie, another big hero of mine.
He would come to the Jazz Workshop and he played with Dave Liebman’s Lookout Farm and Jack DeJohnette’s band. And I remember one time I saw him there and he had this MXR distortion. In Boston I could have gone to — what was it called? Wurlitzer Music, which was about a block, two, three blocks from the Jazz Workshop. I could’ve gone over there and bought one for like $35 but I knew that at Manny’s in New York they were like $30.
This is to give you an idea of how smart I am. So I drove all the way down to Manny’s. But gas was cheaper too. But I drove down to Manny’s and —
JH: To save five bucks?
BF: Yeah. And then I probably spent $40 on parking.
JH: But you got the deal.
BF: Yeah, I went and I got that. But that was Abercrombie: I think that was kind of the first pedal that I got, because of him. And it was also because I was hearing it. I remember listening to Santana, and there was something in that, you’d have this really long sustain thing, like Freddie Hubbard or something.
It reminded me of a trumpet, and I wanted to have that sound. And then I got a wah wah pedal and then a volume pedal. That was such a huge thing. I heard a few guitar players like Larry Carlton, or on Joni Mitchell’s records, a lot of guys were using volume pedals. I thought, oh yeah, that’s kind of like breathing, you know? And so like with Fuzz-Tone and a volume pedal, I was getting closer to like a vocal or a horn sound. I was thinking about that a lot.
And then eventually I got this tape delay by Univox.
JH: But then the looping was part of that time too.
BF: Did you ever meet Bob Quine?
JH: No, but I remember him.
BF: I had met him and we would do these jam session things. He was awesome, and talking about music, and one day he brought this Electro-Harmonix sixteen-second delay, and it was like, oh my God, this is major, it was just instantaneous. It was like my brain was already wired into it or something. That sort of became something almost separate from the guitars.
JH: I’d never heard that before you started using it.
BF: But I never did anything that was original. I’ll tell you that. I stole it from everyone. I was also using a compressor.
JH: Oh yeah. The compressor. I bought all this stuff to try to sound like you and it never worked. Dammit.
BF: I had the volume pedal and I had the compressor. So I had the volume pedal to help me make it louder and softer, and then I had the compressor to sort of squeeze the notes out. For years and years I had that. And then thanks to the airlines losing my stuff… There was a gig with Paul somewhere in Europe and the airlines lost all my stuff. So I’m like, how am I going to do the gig without it? So I had to do the gig with just my guitar and then I realized — wait a minute. And it was totally fine. I realized the compressor was sort of canceling out what the volume pedal was doing. I realized it was mostly coming from just my hands anyway. So I don’t know if it was right away, but pretty quickly I started getting rid of that stuff… I got seduced. I’d spent all these years trying to not sound like a guitar. And then I think there was a point where, wow, the guitar is kind of a cool instrument. And I got more seduced with the actual sound of the guitar.
JH: Maybe it’s time to take some questions from the audience.
Audience Member: Bill, I know I’ve seen you solo a number of times and you have some interesting use of guitar effects, and I know many of us love using effects. But now we’re in an age where there are pedals which come with eighty-five- or ninety-page instruction manuals. Do you gravitate more towards simpler pedals that are easy to use or to play live, or do you appreciate the flexibility these more complex ones give you?
BF: Yeah, definitely the simpler, if it’s just got an on-off switch and a knob.
It has to be super quick. I can’t be looking at a screen and a menu and then scroll through. I mean by that time whatever you were thinking is long gone. I still use a pencil on paper.
Audience Member: Can I ask you about your technique a bit? Do you use vibrato like where it’s messing with your chords to give it an out-of-tune sound?
BF: I think that’s another thing that people made me aware of later. I had that Gibson SG they would talk about how the neck’s so flexible. I was always moving it around [plays guitar]. I think it’s because it’s really impossible to get from place to place where everything is really in tune. And so I think that sound is coming from the struggle of hearing that note sounds a little bit high, so I’m sort of pushing against it to bring it down. I’m constantly trying to pull it into being in tune.
Audience Member: In a typical session do you bring in some written material, or just a chord chart and you sit down and play? Or how much of that is written out when you all are playing figures together and how much time goes into that?
BF: With most of the people I’ve played with I’m really not into discussing what we should do. I just want to play and we have a conversation.
Audience member: Why do you look so happy when you play?
BF: Music is so great, right? I’m serious, but it’s not a joke either. Everything is in there. There’s humor, and I’ve cried when I play too, or I’ve been pissed off when I played and you can do all that. It’s all in there all the time. And sometimes it’s all happening at once. But I never got in trouble for smiling.
Yeah, it’s incredible when you think that — I’ve said that so many times — that Segovia and Robert Johnson and Jimmy Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and I are all playing the same instrument. It’s like an orchestra. Every string is a different voice.
Audience Member: When you come up with these themes for records, do you plan that out? Like, “You know what, I’m listening to John Lennon a lot, lemme take that further and get a group together,” or “I’m listening to guitar from the 60s, let me make a project around that?”
BF: It’s more like just one thing leads to another. More recently, like my last album, I purposely said, “Man, I gotta just play my own tunes.” Cause it’s so seductive. I could spend the rest of my life just playing Burt Bacharach tunes or something. And I’m telling you, there’s plenty there to spend a lifetime. But you know, it’s really easy to go off on these tangents. But I’ve never had goals set in the future. It’s sort of going along from one thing to another, just trying to keep up.
Audience Member: So you oftentimes use multiple guitars on the tracks and you do it so well, you know, like acoustic and electric. And I’m thinking of the album with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, where you’re playing acoustic and then you layer electric on top or vice versa. Can you take us through that process and how that session was for you?
BF: Yeah, there’s a bunch of questions in that question.
JH: I think he’s asking when you use different guitars on a track, how do you strategize that, especially on the Dave Holland/Elvin Jones trio record.
BF: I can’t even believe that that happened. I guess I’ll answer it backwards.
To play with Elvin and Dave Holland together was some dream thing. Prior to that I’d met Elvin very briefly, just shook his hand and he crushed my hand. Paul Motian introduced me to Elvin. That was amazing just to shake his hand. And then my friend Michael Shrieve… See, these connection things are just — immediately, you’re talking about my Gibson SG and I’m thinking about Santana playing at Woodstock, and I didn’t go to Woodstock. That’s the summer that I came to New York with my parents. And I knew there was this big festival up there, but I’d already seen Jimi Hendrix and it was raining and everything, so I went to see Lou Rawls in Central Park! Damn… But then I also went to the Vanguard and I saw Gary Burton for the first time. And Santana was playing at Woodstock, playing an SG, right? Cool guitar. But the drummer in that band was Michael Shrieve, who was like 18 at the time, I think 19 maybe. And then however many years later, 30 years later, I moved to Seattle and I met him. Man, I love this story. So when he was a kid — I’m sorry, I’m going all over the place, but to show you what a kind of guy Elvin is — so Michael went to see Elvin, I don’t know how old he was, 15 or something like that. He wants to see Coltrane’s quartet with McCoy [Tyner] and Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. And he couldn’t, he was too young to get in. So he’s outside, he’s in the alleyway or something, and he figures out a way — there’s like a window that goes into the bathroom. So he climbs in, jumps into the bathroom, and there’s Elvin Jones and McCoy in the bathroom. And it was like, “Hey kid, what’s going on?” And so they let him come in. I guess that’s how he met Elvin, and he became friends with Elvin, you know, and then a couple of years later he’s like a big star with Santana. So he had a long, long relationship with Elvin.
And so many, many years later, I meet him in Seattle and we play and I made a record with Michael and so Michael had this idea. He thought, “Man, it would be so great if you played with Elvin.” And I was like, “You’re kidding me!” But he got that together. I just played that song “Hard Times,” right?
Which I played on that record with them. That was another thing. Like I knew Elvin also played guitar, right? He loved blues and stuff and I was thinking about that a lot before I did that album. And some people gave me a little bit of grief for that. Some people said, “How could you play that song with Elvin Jones?” You know, that song “Hard Times.” As if that was insulting to Elvin. I was there! I was with Elvin. So fuck you!
So I’m with Elvin and I’m saying, “Man, do you want to play this song?” He said, “Oh man, I love that stuff. I played with Pete Seeger. I love those songs and you know, Big Bill Broonzy…” and he was talking about all that. He was so into it. So anyway, I just want to acknowledge that he thought it was cool.
So then the other thing that happened on that record was I got together with Dave Holland. I knew that we only had two days with Elvin, right? So no rehearsal. And everything was going through his wife, dealing with all the business — I hadn’t even talked to Elvin or anything. So I got together with Dave the day before and we went over a couple tunes and I’m thinking, Dave had played with Elvin, he’s fired up. And, wow, this is going to be so great. So the time comes, we go to the studio and we set up our stuff and it’s getting later and later and later. “Hmm, where’s Elvin? Maybe we should call him.” So Michael Shrieve was there and he calls and Elvin was like “What? I thought it was tomorrow!”
So then, you know, they come with the drums, and I think we got a little bit done that day, but then we only had the one other day. So we recorded that day and we were playing, I forget what song it was and I said to Dave,
“Oh yeah, we’ll just do it like we did the other day at the rehearsal.” And Elvin was like, “Man, you guys rehearsed? How come you didn’t tell me? I would’ve come!” He was so into it, but there were a lot of barriers, you know, protection. So we just had a few hours together.
So you were asking about overdubs and all that stuff. I did add some acoustic guitar or something on some of the tunes. I don’t know if I would’ve done that if we would’ve had one more day. And then we had talked about getting together again, but it never worked. So what’s on that album is what we did in just a very few hours. So some of the overdubs, maybe I just wanted to orchestrate it bigger or something. We never did a gig or anything, but that was amazing.
JH: There’s a track you played on the last Bonnie Raitt record — a Joe Henry song, “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” wasn’t that you?
BF: I played on a Bonnie Raitt record that we did with Joe Henry. I remember the session, it was so cool because it was at Joe Henry’s house in the basement and I did a few things there. He had a little home studio where everyone’s just in the same room. Yeah, Patrick Warren is playing keyboards and Greg Leisz is playing acoustic guitar.
JH: Talk about how you disappear in the track as an accompanist and just do what you do.
BF: But it’s the same thing we were talking about. Just taking my attention away from [myself], and she’s singing, you’re getting off on that, right? So it’s just, listen to that, and I’m not figuring it out or anything. I feel like with Bonnie, I was playing as freely as if I was playing with whoever.
JH: John Zorn.
BF: Yeah. Or maybe even more freely. I didn’t feel like I was holding anything back. I was just listening, the sound she was making, and I’m making sound and then you get that conversational thing going in the same way as if it was an instrumental person. And then when the solo comes, it’s like you got all that inspiration from what she just been doing and it’s just, oh boy. What comes to my mind is being in that room, the whole place we were playing was smaller than the size of this stage, with the control board and the engineer and Joe and Greg’s over there, and Dave’s over there, and Bonnie sitting there on the couch and she’s got her dog with her. You’re in a small living room. And we said, okay, let’s try this one.
Audience Member: I’m hearing you talk about melody, melody, melody. You hear the melody through as you’re playing. Are you hearing the actual melody, or you’re saying it’s branching off, or can you talk about that?
BF: Well, it’s like it becomes the spine of everything. So if it’s there internally, you can jump off of it and come back to it and grab on to it. And if everybody’s doing that, it doesn’t even have to be stated. If everybody knows where it is, then we all know where we are and you can take chances and you jump off of a cliff. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to go away from it and see what’s out there in space and then not be afraid to make a mistake. If you’re not afraid. Every once in a while I, let’s say, get off a fret. If you’re open to it and don’t panic and actually listen to what just happened, it’s like, “Whoa, I never thought about that. It is possible to do that.” And then you can do it again and you add that into your vocabulary. So I mean, mistakes can be really great.
JH: Wow, that’s a great way to end: “Mistakes can be great.”
Joel Harrison is an American jazz guitarist, singer, composer, and arranger. He is the author of “Guitar Talk,” from which this article is excerpted.