Bill Frisell on the musical ‘magic’ between people

Bill Frisell has been making his guitar tell stories for more than 40 years.

His push to innovate and create new sounds has made him one of the most respected musicians in jazz. Trying to define the music that Frisell makes has always been a fool’s errand, but in it lies the entire history of American music.

This year, Frisell added to his long discography with a second album for Blue Note called Valentine. It’s the first recording of his trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, after many years of playing together. Produced by longtime collaborator Lee Townsend, the 13-track album mixes originals, jazz standards, traditional songs and covers.

Frisell spoke to us about how he’s been coping with life in 2020, how the new album came together, and why he feels lucky to have the “magic” connection that he has with his bandmates.

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Can you give us a sense of what the last five months have been like for you? I’ve read that your guitar has been your saviour.

That’s been true my entire life. Since I found the guitar, it’s been a way of keeping me together — and especially now. When I think back as long as I can remember, it’s always been about some sort of musical interaction with another person. With my mother singing around the house when I was a toddler, and in elementary school when they’d hand out a triangle and a tambourine, and by the time I started playing in bands and orchestras in the school music program, there wasn’t more than one or two days that would go by where I wouldn’t do something — up until March 8 or whatever it was, my last gig. It’s traumatic, actually, to be in my own head all the time.

In some ways, it’s really about the communication with others as opposed to the relationship with your guitar?

It’s really been my whole social life. I’ve said many times that it’s my voice. I’m struggling to construct a sentence here, but when I play my guitar, that’s when I really feel at home. At the same time, it has been amazing to remember my love for the instrument itself. I haven’t practised like this in many, many years. Some tune will come into my head and I’ll play it all day, over and over and over again, and just get into it. I haven’t had that since back when I couldn’t find a gig anywhere and I was just sitting around practising all the time.

Do you think you might come out of this a better musician?

Well, I hope so! Music is a lifelong… You take these little steps every day, and this is another part of it. There are some positive aspects to this, too. One of my biggest heroes is Sonny Rollins, and I always think about things he’s said or done, but he had a lot of that during his lifetime, where he’d go off by himself, totally off the scene, and just practise and work on his music in a solitary way. That’s been inspiring to me now. There are so many ways to learn and progress.

But I get the sense that you still will be very much looking forward to the day when there are other people in a room.

Oh, man. So much. I write a lot of music, and in these few months I’ve written pages and pages and pages of stuff. That’s where I really notice it. Once it’s on the paper, that’s only about a third of the way there. Then there’s the point where I need to have people play it, and that’s where it comes to life. So, it’s like there’s a dam that’s built up, and I’m just dying to have somebody play it.

At the Democratic National Convention, your version of John Lennon’s In My Life was played during the “in memoriam” segment. Did you know about that in advance?

I got a message a week [before], and they were asking permission to use that piece. I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty wild.” It felt good, you know. I was surprised and honoured that they would think of me for something like that, especially with some of the people they were [remembering] … John Lewis, Aretha Franklin, all these heroes.

Let’s talk about Valentine, your second album for Blue Note. I get the sense that this is, more than anything, a love letter to the two musicians with whom you play on this recording.

The last thing to come to me is the title. I think that tune Valentine, the word was written on the same piece of paper and it just sort of attached to it, so that became the title of the tune. And then we were thinking about what to call the album, and the title of that song seemed to make sense. David Hajdu, who wrote the liner notes, thought of it as a valentine to Thelonious Monk, because the song is clearly… well, if it’s not absolute plagiarism, it’s definitely—

An homage.

Yeah. And then you can say I love the guys I’m playing with. It’s a good word right now. I think everybody needs a valentine at this moment.

I agree. I’ve spoken with a lot of musicians over the last few months, and you can definitely feel the weight of what’s happening in the world in their artistry and in how they’re communicating. It’s a very difficult time, and for a lot of them, it’s probably the longest time since before they became professionals that they haven’t been running to an airplane or playing a gig. It was an extremely hard stop. There’s definitely a re-calibration that must come with that.

I keep thinking about all these things I used to complain about. There’s not enough legroom on this airplane, or this or that.

You’d take a cramped airplane right now?

Yeah, yeah. So many things I took for granted. They were just normal, and suddenly overnight they’re not.

Are you hopeful? Where do you stand?

I’ve got to be. It seems like by the minute, there’s some sort of wild catastrophe or chaotic… It’s just nuts, what’s going on. But I still believe we can somehow come out the other side of this, and hopefully we’re all learning something. It really makes you think about what our priorities should be, and the things that we’ve been letting slide. We’ve got to get it together. It’s terrifying. With this election coming up … a lot is resting on that.

Are you in Brooklyn?

Yeah, I’m actually just walking around. It’s amazing, beautiful weather, and there are all these people out, too. A couple of months ago, it was like a ghost town. All you’d hear is sirens and helicopters, and today it’s a beautiful day and there are all kinds of people out walking around. So, I’m seeing a bit of light coming through here.

The two gentlemen who play on Valentine — Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston — you’ve played with them for a number of years but you’ve never made a real recording with them. Can you tell me about those guys and what it means to make music with them?

As a trio, we’ve played quite a bit, but we’d never had a recording. I think it was in the early ’90s that I met Rudy, and then at least 20 years ago I met Thomas. I connected with each of them individually really strongly, so there was a time when I was thinking that I need to get these guys together. I recorded a bunch with both of them on different projects. I’m asked the question a lot, where they say, “What is it about them?” We’ve never had to figure anything out or talk about anything. We’ve never even had much rehearsal. You connect with someone in a way that it’s just… Both of these guys, the first time I played with them, it felt like we’d been playing together our whole lives. It almost feels like some sort of magic. To try to analyze it too much, I’m afraid… I don’t want to break it.

So much of it is nonverbal, it’s just through the beauty of music.

Totally. That’s what it is. I feel so lucky. Over my lifetime, it’s beyond belief the people I’ve gotten to play with, and I just feel so lucky to be able to be with these guys.

I saw that you’ve given a big thanks to Don Was, head of Blue Note. Is there a way to identify how special it is to work with him?

I met him a number of years ago. We were actually on a gig together, where he was playing bass. It was a Leonard Cohen tribute. We’re close to the same age, and there’s so much common experience, coming up through the same time period and hearing a lot of the same music. I think it was when I started to play with Charles Lloyd, that’s when we really bonded over our love of Charles Lloyd. One thing led to another. The first album, Harmony, it was finished but we didn’t have a home for it. Lee Townsend asked Don if they’d be interested, and he didn’t even listen to it — he knew who was on it, that it was me, and he trusted us. There wasn’t any hesitation that he wanted to do it.

One of the tunes on the album is What the World Needs Now Is Love by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. I’m sure the material comes in a whole bunch of different ways, but why was this one chosen for the new record?

Some of it we’ve played a lot, and some we’d never played before. That was one we often played at gigs. I didn’t have an overall plan for the shape of the record. We just sort of started with something and then went on to the next. That popped up at some point and seemed like a good thing. We did this album long before anybody knew what was coming, but so many of the songs are relevant. Whatever was happening then, those songs were relevant for that day, and they’re still relevant now.