Maryland-born Bill Frisell is an extraordinary guitarist who seamlessly moves between jazz, bluegrass, Americana, country and folk genres, while bringing his unique tone and feel to each. Frisell got his big break in the early 1980s when Pat Metheny couldn’t make a session and recommended him to ECM Records, where he established himself as a key part of their team. Subsequently Frisell worked closely with John Zorn, Paul Motian, and Jan Gabarek.
Frisell has covered songs by artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan and Madonna, but has also composed his own work over a highly productive career that has spawned several dozen albums. He has contributed to film soundtracks such as Buster Keaton and Finding Forrester, and plays, for example, in duets, quartets, quintets and solo. It is impossible to do full justice to his output, but here Guitars Exchange offers an introductory selection of 10 of his songs:
In a New York Paste Studios session, recorded live on 16 August 2017, Frisell kicks off with Small Town (from the well-received jazz album of the same name, released 26 May 2017) that then later moves onto Goldfinger at 24 minutes, which is the standout track. Frisell is superbly accompanied here by Thomas Morgan on double bass, whose incredible shyness and considered responses makes even the guitarist sound bold. But it is precisely the duo’s humility, gentleness and complicity that makes this session such a gem. As Frisell says: “for me in music if you can stay in a naive state, to me thats the best feeling, you are never sure what’s coming next and every moment you are finding it; what is so extraordinary about Thomas is it seems like he anticipates… he always knows where I am somehow.”
Frisell holds his J.W. black Telecaster as he explains how the song reminds him of taking his girlfriend out to watch James Bond movies when he was younger. “So much of the music that John Barry wrote are beautiful compositions and the way he used the guitar in the context of the orchestra with all that brass in it... it is hard to play, I struggle with that song a lot as there are a lot of twists and turns in it; there are so many possibilities and harmonics to find within it.” But Frisell finds them, and in doing so adds new colour to his highly original interpretation.
We Shall Overcome
In the November 2020 ‘Shelter in Place’ sessions Frisell offers a lovely collection that includes Valentine, Lotus Blossom and Hard Times but it is the last track, We Shall Overcome, at 24 minutes 30 seconds, that is chosen for this list because it is beautifully interpreted and was so obviously chosen as a message of hope and solidarity during this extremely difficult year.
At the NPR Music offices Frisell brilliantly reinterprets John Lennon’s Nowhere Man, In My Life and Strawberry Fields Forever, but it is the latter at 12 minutes that is showcased here. As Frisell himself acknowledges it is very easy to diminish these classic songs but through the sensitive use of time delays, reverb and other effects he carefully selects a ‘diamond’, and then draws out entirely new facets. In September 2011 Frisell released All We Are Saying, a full-length offering of his interpretations of Lennon's music, in which he approaches each song with great love and respect. “The Beatles music is in my blood,” he humbly explains, “but I’ve never really played these by myself in this exposed way so I am not sure what’s going to happen, but thanks for giving me this chance…”
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Frisell is back with his customised Fender Telecaster to interpret Bob Dylan’s classic song in a performance for Fretboard Journal. On this cool solo act he’s playing through a Strymon Flint pedal and a Gibson GA-50T amp, via which he finds perfect tone and melody. He is not singing but you may hear the lyrics wash over you if you just sit back and shut your eyes… “Where have you been my blue-eyed son, Where have you been, my darling young one, I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways…”
In My Life & What The World Needs Now
I am shamelessly cheating here by choosing these two songs under the justification that they were both recorded in the last twelve months on outdoor patios in Brooklyn. On The Beatles’ In My Life, recorded on 9 April 2020, two colleagues join Frisell in a street set up that is so casual that when a little girl cheerfully descends the steps right next to them at nearly six minutes the whole song starts to charmingly fall apart. On the other hand, Frisell offers another glorious street interpretation on 19 July 2020 of Burt Bacharach’s What The World Needs Now, which is presumably another welcome nod to the challlenges nearly everyone has faced over the last year.
At the Melbourne Jazz Festival 2017 Frisell joins bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston to plays Epistropy, It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago and Hank Williams’ I'm So Lonely I Could Cry but it is Rambler, from the 1985 album of the same name, that is chosen here. Some guitarists like to pack their solos with as many notes as possible but Frisell gives a masterclass in how to perfectly use as few as possible in service of the song.
On the sixth day of a Fretboard Journal session, Frisell plays Surfer Girl on his Fender Esquire. Again the guitarist respects Brian Wilson’s original version while contributing to the longing that underpins the song. As one commentator notes: “no guitarist has ever used challenging areas like harmonics or dissonance quite as tastefully and delicately as Frisell; his finesse is uncanny.” As with The Beatles, Frisell has been a long time fan of Surf music: “I was listening to the Beach Boys at 11 or 12,” he says, “I was so fired up about the music of that time…”
Frisell covers The Chantays 1962 classic on his 2014 Guitar in the Space Age! album. Our accompanying video pick, however, is from a 14 November 2014 session with drummer Kenny Wollesen, bassist Tony Scherr and guitarist Greg Leisz, who combine perfectly together. Pipeline has been covered many times but here the tone, timing and reverse loops are something special; just take a listen!
St Louis Blues
On a more recent video from Fretboard Journal, Frisell offers a rare solo cover of W.C. Handy's classic St. Louis Blues with few effects. The guitarists interprets the song on his Steve Andersen 17 archtop, which if you’ve never seen one is a very special looking guitar!
This selection ends with one of Bill Frisell’s own songs - released on his 1999 album Good Dog Happy Man - which also happened to feature Ry Cooder. The Pioneers is a lovely song that is one of his most popular on Spotify, and it is warmly recommended here.