After Dark: Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell is going solo at breakneck speed

05:00 AM, Mar 21, 2013

Bill Frisell says his first experience playing solo was 'absolutely terrifying.' (Michael Wilson)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Bill Frisell, playing a benefit for Rochester Contemporary Art Center.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday (March 24).
Where: Water Street Music Hall, 204 N. Water St.
Tickets: $35 and $45 VIP in advance; $45 and $55 VIP the day of the show, available at

Figuring out where Bill Frisell is musically at any moment is like trying to catch a handful of mercury. “Oh man, I think I’m on the same vibration, trying to figure out where I am,” he says. “Today’s what? Wednesday? Friday I’m going to Berklee to record a new album.”

Bill, just remember: Sunday. Rochester. Water Street Music Hall. Just you and your guitar.

Frisell comes by his frantic scheduling honestly. He is not only one of the most-renowned jazz guitarists in the world — Pat Metheny and John Scofield are in that group — but he’s now one of the world’s most-renowned jazz musicians, period. He’s played the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival four times, with nary a seat to be found in Kilbourn Hall.

Sunday’s show, a benefit for Rochester Contemporary Art Center, will be unlike any of those jazz fest shows. Frisell is playing solo.

Solo, that’s become sort of a lifelong adventure, trying to figure out how to do that,” he says. “I first tried it maybe 30 years or more ago, to play solo for the first time. It was absolutely terrifying, I was basically just trying to get through it. So much of what music has meant to me is the interaction with the person I’m playing with, so playing solo was a shock to my system. Even just one other person, you put an idea out and this conversation starts, this back-and-forth thing. There’s energy, things start happening, that’s how I communicated my whole life. In college I had to take this speech class and I thought, ‘Oh my God …’ I don’t know if I passed that class. I didn’t do well. When information comes straight out of my mouth, not having anything come back is very difficult for me.”

So far, he’s doing pretty well with this interview. And yes, Frisell admits, whether talking or playing alone, “I’m more comfortable with it now. I know I can just start playing whatever, and I can just go off in any direction.”

He has been so many places. Ambient is a fine word to describe Frisell’s guitar sound, but it’s also too limiting. His musical partners are constantly shifting, and they’re not always fellow jazz players. A beautifully sentimental version of a James Taylor song is presented as seriously as Thelonius Monk. Frisell frequently bounces his musical ideas off of other artistic ideas. He’s written soundtracks to accompany the silent films of Buster Keaton. His 2009 album Disfarmer riffs off of the bleak, Depression-era photos by Mike Disfarmer. Richter 858 was written as a commission to write music to accompany a book of paintings by Gerhard Richter, a German abstractionist whose main tool is a squeegee. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved is actually a 2011 audio book in which Frisell accompanies actor Tim Robbins’ reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous essay on the famous horse race.

There’s so much going on, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been,” Frisell says. “Not that many years ago, I never dreamed I’d be doing any of this stuff. It’s overwhelming, in a good way.”

But overwhelming, nonetheless. The album that Frisell was heading off to record last week sprang from the commotion that is his jazz life. Commissioned to write a piece for the Monterey Jazz Festival, Frisell went to northern California last fall in search of solitude. A ranch in Big Sur, south of Monterey.

I went there to be by myself,” he says. “It’s huge, the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen. Except for the caretaker, I was pretty much alone for a week for the two times I was there, to try to write music.

Curiously, another artist had once sought out the solace of Big Sur: the writer Jack Kerouac.

On the Road had just come out, he was getting some success, and drinking a lot,” Frisell says. “Things were way out of control. Everybody was recognizing him, and he went to Big Sur to try and clean himself up a little bit. I wasn’t going through some kind of drug withdrawal …”

Frisell had bought a copy of the book that Kerouac wrote while there, Big Sur, and took it with him. True, Frisell wasn’t seeking quite the same kind of withdrawal as Kerouac, but he recognized the solutions that the writer found in that beautifully desolate landscape.

The book starts out with him getting there, with all of the craziness going on in his life,” Frisell says. “The description of him walking up this canyon in the middle of the night, trying to find this little cabin, was just like my experience. When I got there, it was late and a dark night, I didn’t know what I was getting into.

Reading that book was an inspiration. The similarity to when he went up there and wrote, just getting off that roller coaster, and how it allows you to get inside yourself. Being in that place allowed me to deal with what seems like the hardest thing now, finding quiet. I needed the space to let the music come out.”

Kerouac and his Beat Generation pals were well-known for their love of jazz. Kerouac was particularly fond of the saxophonist Charlie Parker. The music that Frisell came up with likely won’t sound like Parker. And that was never the idea.

The music, I don’t even know where it really comes from,” Frisell says. “When I try to pin it down, it gets stuck. I was on a ranch up on these cliffs overlooking this ocean, I forget how many acres, but it’s as far as you can see. I’d just walked around, looking. I brought a little notebook with me and tried to write down melodies, whatever came into my head, before going back into the real world and try to put it all together.”