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By Tom Murphy
Improvisational wizard Bill Frisell is known worldwide for his ethereal, thinking-man's work on the guitar, which he transforms into a stringed soulmate to wind instruments. The breathy, electrified tone that he produces with the help of volume pedals and other technological tools is simply splendid, as is his unplugged playing. Critics gush about his ability to fit perfectly into electric and acoustic settings--a talent rooted in Frisell's refusal to treat these two approaches as incompatible. After talent and luck, this skill might just be the key to his appeal.
"There's really no way to put into words what goes on when the music is happening," says Frisell, a Denver native and graduate of East High School. "All I can say is that I play in all these different circumstances. I love to put myself in different situations, and sometimes people are impressed with that. They're always asking me how I can play in all these contexts and still maintain my own voice. Maybe it's something about my personality, but I like to put myself in these situations and just listen to what is going on and try to use my instincts to come up with something. Now, it might sound like something very different out on the exterior. But for me, it's all the same. I'm using the same instincts to deal with it."
This intuitive approach has served Frisell well over the past twenty years. During that time, he's created bracing improvisational music in the company of the artsy, the outside, the hip: In addition to his longtime bandmates, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Kermit Driscoll, Frisell's collaborators have included John Zorn, Paul Motian, Tim Berne, David Sanborn, Jim Pepper, Marianne Faithfull and, most recently, legendary Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie Haden and onetime Cream member/current Colorado resident Ginger Baker. Frisell, Haden and Baker formed the trio that created Baker's Going Back Home, a recording issued by Atlantic Records that is among the most exciting and creative albums of the year.
The Going Back Home sessions are typical of the unconventional, provocative musical happenings in which Frisell often finds himself. The upcoming Denver appearance for this local boy made good promises to be no exception.
"I can't really tell you just how excited I am about this," Frisell admits. He notes that his appearance will sport two sets--one in which he'll duet with his former guitar teacher, Dale Bruning, and another with the Ron Miles Trio, featuring trumpeter Miles and drummer Rudy Royston (both East High alums) as well as bassist Artie Moore. Appropriately, Frisell plans to play the same guitar--a Steve Kline custom model with a small body, a Steinberger-like neck and an odd design--during both sections of the show. (Rumors about an onstage reunion with Baker are swirling throughout the jazz community, but Frisell says it's unlikely: "I sent him [Baker] a card and told him I was coming, but I really haven't spoken to him since we finished the album.")
While Frisell usually lists Jim Hall, Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery as his greatest influences, he says that Bruning--whom he met at age seventeen, when he was a senior at East--was the person who gave him his first musical push. "He was maybe the most important teacher I ever really had," Frisell reveals. "I'm not sure I would really even be playing the guitar if it wasn't for him. I played clarinet, and I was kind of serious about that--I played it in school and I had private teachers. I played guitar at the same time, but I really hadn't found what I wanted with that, and I'd never really had any guitar instruction. I played guitar in little bands at school and stuff. But it was all done on my own until I met Dale and he opened up this whole new world for me, just when I was starting to get interested in jazz music."
Frisell studied with Bruning through his graduation from East and his first two years as a student at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Back then, he remembers looking down on the area's music scene--an opinion he's since reconsidered. "Now that I'm gone, I realize there was probably a lot more happening in Denver than I realized at the time," he concedes. "But there was hardly anything on the radio. I remember one station where I heard them play Kenny Burrell and Coltrane's `My Favorite Things.' That was something. But when I met Dale, he would talk about Charlie Parker, who I'd never even heard of. Or Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins. I mean, it was completely new information for me."
More recently, Frisell's head was turned by Ron Miles, whose music he first heard on a Seattle radio station. Impressed, Frisell decided to track Miles down. "When I first talked to Ron on the phone, I just called him up," Frisell notes. "We ended up talking for about an hour, and it wasn't your normal first conversation. I felt this kind of hookup right away. Then I found out he went to East, too, and man, that was sort of like really weird."