Bill Frisell is a guitar string snake charmer — an experimentalist so true to his North Star that his very name is synonymous with aural revelation. He’s performing twice at this year’s Portland Jazz Festival with two very different shows lined up. February 24 and 25, Bill plays tribute to the works of pedal steel guitarist, Wesley Webb “Speedy” West and guitarist, fiddle player and producer Jimmy Bryant, as well as pop icon John Lennon in “For Portland Only.” His second evening will turn to the ethereal, boasting his classically sublime 858 Quartet and a solo opening set on February 25. We asked Bill a bit about his work, his friends and what inspires him below.
Ace readers, guests and friends are invited to take advantage of a friendly deal on tickets for all of Bill’s February 24 show with code ACEJAZZ when booking —just contact the festival directly. You can get this same Ace-insider deal for shows at the Crystal Ballroom with Vijay Iyer and Charlie Hunter, both of whom we’ll be posting interviews with here soon. Keep an eye out.
What fuels your fascination with American music & themes?
I was born in 1951. Fender guitars. Rock and roll. Television. Hot rods. Dinosaurs. Rocket ships. Outer space. Cowboys. Surfboards. The future. Leave it to Beaver. My Three Sons. Bonanza. The Mickey Mouse Club.
I have loved music for as long as I can remember. Most of my time has been spent trying to figure it out. Where does it come from? Where do I come from? The music always tells me what to do and where to go. There’s never been a question of what comes next. Always something new right there in front of me. It never ends. Cannot be finished. Amazing. Music is good.
You’re playing two shows for Jazz Fest with quite different themes — what opportunities or experiences does this offer for yourself and your audiences?
I’m excited to have the chance to play in all these different contexts. It’s a challenge and a little scary thinking about getting all that music together, but I’ll be with my best friends. They never let me down. The music always tells us what to do. Takes care of itself. We discover new things each time we play together. The audience becomes part of this process. I’m thankful we can all be in on this together.
Tell me about your project with The Wexner Center for the Arts, interpreting the music of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant.
Years ago, my friend Chuck Helm from the Wexner Center played me this amazing music. Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Virtuosos. I’d never heard it before. Crazy. Amazing. Pedal steel and electric guitar. I never would have thought to actually try to play that stuff. But…years later, after developing a long partnership with my good friend Greg Leisz, Chuck suggested we try to play some of that music. I thought he was crazy. But then he had the idea to call it “Not So Fast.” This kind of got us off the hook. It’s been inspiring spending time with that music. I’m learning a LOT. And it’s been super fun.
In the vein of other great musicians who have inspired you, can you tell us a bit about the late and singular Paul Motian, and how he influenced and inspired you?
In 1968 I went to my first jazz concert. The Charles Lloyd Quartet. Keith Jarrett on piano, Ron McClure on bass, and Paul Motian on drums.
I was discovering a new world. Life changing. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. These people became my heros. Pointed the way. Paul was one of them. Never dreamed I’d ever have the chance to play with him. In 1981 he called me and asked if I wanted to come over to his apartment. I couldn’t believe it. The first song we played together was “My Man’s Gone Now”. Gershwin. We kept going for more than 30 years. With him I could be myself. He wanted me…not just a guitar player. His music always felt like my music. Every time we played it felt like the first time. I never knew what was going to happen. Dreams came true with him. Amazing.