Bill Frisell: Making New Solo Album Was Like Playing a Gig in Slow Motion

Monica Jane Frisell
The Bill Frisell Trio performs at the Boulder Theater on Wednesday, June 13.

When guitarist Bill Frisell, who grew in Denver and is now based in Brooklyn, was beginning his career as a professional musician in the early ’80s, he played a solo show for the first time and told himself he never wanted to do it again. But the next year he did another solo gig and one the year after that, and it gradually became easier.

“When I first started to do it, there was this sort of feeling of panic,” Frisell says of playing solo. “Like I would play something, and then I would be terrified of the space, and I’d feel like I had to play something else right away to fill it in. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better about it, like, ‘Okay, I’m going to play this phrase or this idea, and it goes out in the air and then 'Okay, just let that sit there for a minute,’ and then I’ll play something else. It’s been a long process of getting more and more comfortable with playing by myself.”

The chameleonic Frisell clearly knows how to get inside whatever music he’s playing, whether it’s jazz, Americana, country, folk or many other music traditions that he’s worked into one of the most distinctive guitar voices in the last few decades. Music IS, Frisell’s first solo album in a decade, shows just how wide his scope reaches.

To prepare for Music IS, he took a big pile of sheet music of his own songs to a weeklong solo stint at the experimental music space The Stone in New York City and played different songs each night. Some of these songs were newer compositions that he hadn’t played yet, or older songs he had never performed live, like “In Line,” from his 1983 ECM debut of the same name.

“So I’d dig up some old thing and I’d start looking at it,” Frisell says. “It’s like, ‘What is it?’ I didn’t even know what it was. That was an intense kind of revelation, to look at things I had written long ago. It’s way past the point where I could remember what I was thinking when I wrote it. And I’m looking at these songs after all these years of playing other stuff. And I see things in it that I never would have, like certain possibilities I would see in the music now that I never even knew were there back then.”

While the sixteen-track Music IS has some stunning new songs, like “Thankful” and “What Do You Want,” Frisell also puts fresh solo takes on older songs like “Rambler,” also from In Line, “Ron Carter” and “The Pioneers.” Frisell recorded the album with longtime collaborators Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, and he says making it was sort of like playing a gig in slow motion.

“When I do a gig, I don’t have a set plan, but whatever happens last is what dictates what is to happen next, I guess,” Frisell says.

Frisell says there’s an incredible amount of freedom in playing solo, in that he can play whatever comes to his mind, but he sometimes has that same kind of freedom playing with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, who will join him at his Boulder Theater show on Wednesday, June 13.

“We've played a lot, the three of us, for I don’t know how many years, either as a trio or duo,” Frisell says. “I’ve played tons of duos with Thomas, and I’ve played duos with Rudy. And then we’ve played with Thomas and Rudy, and then with Petra Haden or Eyvind Kang, and all these other things. It’s the same kind of freedom, like I can’t tell you what we’re going to play. It’s the same thing. We just start playing. We don’t have a set list. It starts going. Those guys know better than I do my own stuff. That’s what kind of crazy. I’m so lucky.”

Bill Frisell Trio, featuring Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston, Wednesday, June 13, Boulder Theater, 303-786-3030, $25-$30.