Bill Frisell: Strange Meeting

I hope you will indulge me in a little personal reminiscing. I was living in New York City, sometime between 1982 and 1984, when I saw an ad in The Village Voice announcing bassist Percy Jones playing at The Bitter End, a small club on Bleecker Street with a band called Stone Tiger. I was a fan of Jones from his work with Brand X. The ad may have mentioned the other band members, but I had no idea who they were and it was Jones’ name that enticed me to go. Stone Tiger was a trio, with drums and guitar. The guitarist was wielding a Roland 300 guitar synthesizer, but it was not the primitive synth sounds he was getting that astounded me. Whether using the synth or the typical guitar pickups, this was the most revolutionary rethinking of the electric guitar I had heard since Jimi Hendrix played my college gymnasium almost two decades prior. He used a volume pedal to swell notes in from the ether, only to return them through delay and reverb. Echoes of country licks appeared amidst jazz harmonies. The abstraction of his solos made Jeff Beck’s seem hyper-linear. Who was this guy??!!

Of course it was my first Bill Frisell sighting. Sadly, Stone Tiger remains almost completely undocumented (there is a torrent file but I chickened out after they asked me to install an extension). Happily, Mr. Frisell subsequently became one of the most documented players of all time, and once I knew his name, I bought every recording that came out, until his output became so frequent I couldn’t keep up.

Living in New York in the early Eighties allowed me to see Bass Desires (Marc Johnson, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Peter Erskine) several times in small clubs. The contrast between Bill’s fractured approach to the instrument and Scofield’s more linear, albeit angular, one only made me appreciate his uniqueness more.

Around 1985, I was working at Rudy’s Music Stop on 48th Street, when I first met Bill. He came in looking for a humbucker to replace the noisy P-90 in his SG Junior. Silent P-90s were not around and vintage guitars were not a thing back then, so I had no problem suggesting we install a Seymour Duncan JB model. He took my advice and we began a nodding acquaintance.

Shortly thereafter, I moved to San Francisco, where I soon met Henry Kaiser. He and Bill were friends and at one point Henry informed me that Bill was having hand problems and was unable to play. I was devastated and asked if he had Bill’s address so I could send him a get well card.

In 1989, I went back to New York for a visit. Looking for something to do one night, I discovered that Bill was playing a rare solo gig at a loft. I went and ended up sitting next to his wife and his then baby daughter. It was at that show I first experienced his dry sense of humor. The cellist from his band, Hank Roberts, coming from a gig of his own, slipped into a seat during the performance.

Bill noticed and this exchange took place:

Bill: Hi Hank

Hank: Hi Bill

Bill: Did you have a good gig Hank?

Hank: Yes Bill

Bill: You know, today’s Friday the 13th.

Hank: I know, Bill

Bill: Did you play “Friday the 13th” [the Thelonious Monk song] during your set, Hank?

Hank: No, Bill

Bill: Did you even allude to it?

Maybe you need to know Bill, jazz, or had to be there, but it was my first inkling of the sly wit that lurked below his quiet, self-effacing personality. Later, in San Francisco, I would see him do 15 minutes of hilariously dry comedy during one of his Yoshi’s sets, and when some yahoo yelled for Skynyrd at a Slims concert, he replied, “Not Skynyrd, Madonna,” and launched into “Live to Tell,” which he would later record. I also once heard him and his band being interviewed on a radio show, where the interviewer asked him his views on jazz. He said, “I am jazz.” Funnier if you know how self-deprecating he was.

After his set he came down the aisle towards his family and saw me waiting to say hello. I was prepared to reintroduce myself, but before I could he gave me a big unexpected hug and said, “Thank you so much for your card.” I was to learn this was typical of the kind of caring, present human being he is.

I have interviewed him a number of times over the years and it is always a pleasure to catch up. I continue to marvel how he remains one of the few players who can lend their talents to artists as diverse as Andrew Cyrille, Elvis Costllo, and Lucinda Williams, while maintaining his distinctive voice in every situation.

He has, of course, influenced my playing, as he has countless guitarists over the last four decades. More important, as someone who was already somewhat versed in the music that makes up his style—jazz, blues, country, avant-garde—he gave me permission to try to incorporate those genres in my own music as seamlessly as he does in his.

In 1991, when I saw that he was going to be playing with Robin Holcomb at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, I lobbied heavily to have the band I was playing with at the time open the bill. I was successful and watched him preform brilliantly on what turned out to be his fortieth birthday. After the gig, despite his suffering form a serious cold, he helped me load out. It was one of those moments where, though we were friends, the fan boy in me couldn’t help but think, “Bill Frisell is helping me bring my gear to my car!”

The high point of our interaction was one interview in his hotel room. He was showing me something on his guitar and I took the opportunity to tell him I learned “Strange Meeting” and proceeded to show him. In the version I learned, Bill pedals an open G for the first three chords, ringing against an F# for the first two and an F for the third, then fingers all the notes of the fourth. I had figured out a way to let the B string remain open, ringing against a Bb on the fourth chord. He watched me do it and said, “I never thought of that.” I am well aware that without his inspiration I wouldn’t have either.

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18 thoughts on “Bill Frisell: Strange Meeting

  1. I saw Stone Tiger live too (I recall it was at The Bottom Line) and was similarly floored. One of the best bands that never was I do have a number of bootlegs of the band and a demo they recorded. If you’re interested let me know. They were as good as you remember.

  2. Great article. Bill has been an influence and an inspiration ever since I saw him on that episode of Night Music. I’ve only seen him maybe ten times or so over the years but when I have had the chance to speak to him he has always been very kind and humble.

  3. Loved this article — thanks!
    I just did a record with the amazing Viktor Krauss last August and Viktor loved playing with Frisell whenever he got the chance. His fave record was, “Gone Just Like A Train” — it’s my fave too. 🙂

  4. LOVED this, Michael. Believe it or not, Frisell hovers over my own playing endeavors as well. Sometimes looming large. I’m in constant awe of how powerful his fragility comes off. A true treasure. We’re all lucky to experience him in real time/real life and not just be left with reading about his legend, i.e. Hendrix, Django, et al.

  5. thanks for sharing this, Michael, a most welcome and faithful rendition of the character we’ve all come to love, deeply.

    i had the honor and pleasure to mix a few of his gigs in early ’90s in Europe, some of the Trio with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron at first, then his Quartet without drums, and without volume pedal.

    one thing, from the FOH mixing perspective, made him totally unique: no matter what he plugged into (rented backline in festivals hardly followed the rider’s specs, then and now), his playing always sounded exactly his own, no matter if on tonight’s gig we found a pair of Roland Jazz Chorus 120, Mesa Boogie Mark II, Fender Twin Reverb with red knobs or, yes, that one, too, Peavey Bandit 65, any of which with the tone controls always and only set to center position at first, and hardly ever moved from there at all.

    and, yes, spooky, when i met him again some seven or eight years later, he still remembered i worked those few gigs when Claudia Engelhardt, his trusted sound engineer of ever, couldn’t make it to Europe.

    Bill is the one whose music has turned into one generation’s soundtrack, or two, across any music genre.
    but even if he was without a guitar in his hands and we were all as lucky as to sit with him in total silence for an hour, we’d go away having learnt something new about different angles on what we thought we knew, be it music, history, or life.

    i, for mine, decided to start playing again, after quitting sound engineering, when i happened to read an interview he gave to Danny Barnes that appeared on Fretboard Journal in 2006. he made my playing worth again to me, which goes a long way beyond what any teacher ever did for me, and my own poor, sorry idea of playing, until then.

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