Born March 18, 1951, in Baltimore, MD. Education: Studied music at the University of Northern Colorado and Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA. Addresses: Record company--Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

Why would a serious jazz guitarist be interested in composing accompaniments for slapstick genius Buster Keaton's silent movies? The answer, as Gene Santoro reported in the New York Daily News, is that Bill Frisell specializes in the unexpected. Santoro pointed out the appeal of Frisell's unique style of playing, noting that a typical set with the guitarist's band--which features bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron--"finds song fragments hurtling in and out of a continuous, unfolding narrative. Rhythms churn and change up, spaces yawn and collapse, and the leader's guitar ricochets from acoustic lyricism to airplane-level raunch." Although a talented composer himself--as evidenced by his work for Keaton--Frisell has an ability to react to others' musical texts that has made him one of the most sought-after session players in contemporary music.

Frisell's collaborative instinct carried over to his own recordings. He has utilized his formidable improvisational skills "to hone a composition style in which weepy country melodies coexist with rumbling funk bass lines and kitschy Fifties rock ... juxtaposed with graceful, surprisingly arresting dissonances," according to Tom Moon of Rolling Stone. His 1993 recording Have a Little Faith at first seems to promise the listener familiar songs, like Madonna's "Live to Tell," Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," and John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me," but then treats those songs as places to begin exploration.

Discussing Have a Little Faith's offerings, Frisell related in Guitar Player, "I've played some of these pieces, like 'When I Fall in Love' and the Sonny Rollins tune, for a really long time. In fact, the Stephen Foster song gets back to my earliest memories of music. It's almost as if there's this pool of melodies that's part of your person." That pool extends to such classical pieces as Charles Ives's "Three Places in New England" and Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid," which helped define the American music conscious. These disparate tunes are held together by the same subtleties of texture that make Frisell instantly identifiable to listeners.

Frisell's interpretations serve to reposition listeners with respect to their musical heritage and continued with 1994's This Land, an extension of Frisell's journey through the American mosaic, drawing, according George Varga in the San Diego Union-Tribune, "from funk, rock, modern jazz, Dixieland, country and pioneering American composers." Critics such as Tom Moon have asserted that this eclectic style is governed by rock and roll's disregard for convention, and Frisell, though not a rock musician, points out that he chose in part to play the guitar because of the music he heard on the radio while growing up.

His choice of instrument has helped define the type of musician Frisell has become. In Guitar Player he confided, "It's harder to deny all the things that have happened on the guitar in the last 30 or 40 years than it would be if you played the saxophone. If I played the saxophone or trumpet, it would be a lot easier to fall into this classicism. Whereas with guitar, you could just do a Wes Montgomery thing, but if you're my age and grew up with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, you'd have to be more blatant."

Yet despite his many influences, Frisell continues to be identified as a jazz musician, an association he could take or leave; he commented in Down Beat, "I don't really care. It doesn't matter what it's called. It bothers me that people use names to box things away. What [jazz musicians] do comes out of jazz, it has a lot of stuff that attracted me to jazz in the first place. But we don't confine ourselves to a certain era: we use everything we know. That's what all the great jazz players do."

In another Guitar Player piece, Frisell asserted that his best music, "writing or playing, comes from instinct. I'm just not thinking about notes. Sure, if you stop me, I can identify what note I'm playing and explain its relationship to an underlying chord, but the music I felt best about comes from somewhere else. The things I've studied intellectually have taken years to seep down, and now they come out naturally."

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Frisell began playing clarinet ain his school marching band in Denver. According to an Elektra/Nonesuch biography, his exposure to the music of Otis Rush, B.B. King, Paul Butterfield, and Buddy Guy instilled in Frisell a passion for Chicago blues. In high school he played in bands covering James Brown tunes and other pop and soul classics, and later, after studying music at the University of Northern Colorado, he attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Frisell moved in 1978 to Belgium where he concentrated on writing music for a year before moving to New York City and staying for ten years.

In an interview with Joe Gore in Guitar Player, Frisell did not downplay his formal education, though "he disagrees with those who argue that conservatory educations hatch musical eggheads." The guitarist commented, "It's only the players' fault if they let themselves be programmed by the routines that [schools] establish. There are all kinds of things you can do with the 'rules' that a school might give you. For example, in the harmony class at Berklee, they'd have 'avoid notes,' notes you weren't supposed to use over a particular chord. Naturally, those were the first ones I'd check out."

The eclecticism and uniqueness of Frisell's playing and composing--perhaps the result of his curiosity about unconventional sounds--is the most often cited aspect of his work. His early 1990s releases, including This Land, Have a Little Faith, and the Buster Keaton film music collections Go West and The High Sign/One Week, earned accolades from magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to Down Beat for their refreshing experimental guitar stylings. In his 1994 review of This Land, Rolling Stone's Josef Woodward praised, "More than almost anyone else in the last decade, Frisell brought a new voice to the fraying realm of the electric guitar."

Frisell's virtuosic and understated playing is, for critics and listeners alike, a welcome relief in the world of contemporary music. The San Diego Union-Tribune's Varga declared, "An artist, not an acrobat, Frisell is one of those rare guitarists who consistently avoid fast licks and overwrought solos. In their place, he offers atmospheric swells, delightful country inflected twangs, bluesy punctuations, surging power chords and wonderfully creative lines that never go where you expect but are always perfectly timed and executed." Whether playing, writing, or leading a band, Frisell exhibits a dexterous maturity, growing out of a unique personal vision that at the same time is also open to other interpreters of the world around him.

by John Morrow

Bill Frisell's Career

Jazz guitarist and composer. Began playing clarinet as a teen and guitar in high school bands; moved to Belgium for a year to write music, 1978; moved to New York until 1989; moved to Seattle, WA.

Bill Frisell's Awards

Cited numerous times in Down Beat critics' polls.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 13, 2005: Frisell won the Grammy Award for best contemporary jazz album for Unspeakable. Source:,, February 14, 2005.

August 9, 2005: Frisell's live album, East/West, was released. Source:,, August 18, 2005.

Further Reading


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