Eliot Fisk on collaborating with Bill Frisell and improvisation

Although classical guitarist Eliot Fisk and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell have known each other since they first met in Germany nearly 25 years ago, they've never performed together -- until now. Both are due for solo set tonight, January 20 at DU's Newman Center, where they'll join forces for a third. Fisk and Frisell have been e-mailing ideas back and forth for a while, trying to decide which songs to feature in this classical/jazz mash-up. They could play works by Frisell, Luciano Berio, Robert Beaser, Stephen Foster or even J.S. Bach, whom Fisk considers the most jazzy of the great composers.

Fisk's approach to classical music has a lot in common with the spontaneity and improvisation of jazz, he explains. And he thinks that Frisell's elegant, stylish jazz playing is very classy -- almost in a classical way. We spoke with Fisk, who was the last direct pupil of classical guitar master Andrés Segovia, about how this collaboration with Frisell came to be and about improvisation.

Westword: How did this collaboration with Bill Frisell come to be?

Eliot Fisk: It's interesting, because Bill and I have known each other for probably 25 years. We met back in Germany, and we would cross paths at guitar festivals and stuff. I said, "We really should do something." And it never really happened until now. The Newman Center actually came up with the proposal, and we said, "That sounds great. Let's give it a ride."

Basically, what's so interesting about this is that the two of us have been playing music all of our lives but from slightly different parts of the musical world. Me, obviously, in the classical world, and Bill in the jazz world. But, in fact, that way that I try to classical music has a lot to do with the spontaneity of the jazz approach and the improvisatory quality of the jazz approach is something I'm after in classical music.

Any of us who do baroque music are fairly familiar with improvisation within, in perhaps more limited parameters than jazz people, but we do a lot of it ourselves like adding ornaments or accompanying figured bass or things like this.

So for me, it's a fun opportunity and something that I have done off and on throughout my life. Almost twenty years ago, right near the end of the life of the great Joe Pass, I also did a number of concerts with him, mixing jazz guitar and classical guitar. The work with Bill is even closer at home. Particularly, I think those of us who love baroque music so much as I do find a lot of commonality with the jazz approach or the jazz style. We're going to explore some of those parameters.

So we've been sending each other music. I've got some of Bill's stuff and some of his suggestions, and he's got some of my classical ideas of what we might do. Basically, we're going to put it together as jazz people do, very spontaneously. A day or two before the concert we'll decide what we're going to play and more or less how we're going to play them and then go on stage and do it.

That's not something that classical people do a lot, but jazz people do it all the time. They meet each other, and the first time they meet each other is at the sound check, and then they go on stage and play together. So that's a wonderful thing, a wonderful way to make music and for me, a classical player, a refreshing way to make music. So that's what we're going to be doing.

From what I gather, there a number of players who are afraid of improvisation.

It is scary the first time you do it. And perhaps we need to plan a little bit more than, say, a jazz player. But still, the basic approach itself is not at all foreign to me. I think Bill, in his jazz playing, there's a great intellectual component, too. He does it in a very classy way. I would almost say classical way. You could get together with people who are much more chaotic than Bill. Bill's very organized for being a jazz guy.

Very thoughtful, I think. Sort of a thoughtful jazz musician, and there have been many throughout the history of jazz. He's a particularly elegant, stylish player. He doesn't go for the cheap effect. I think he's looking for a deeper way of doing things. I'm really excited to see what will transpire.

Many people are trying to do this crossover thing in many different ways. Some of these experiments works, and some of them work less well, but I think we've got very good sort of basic points of departure here, because I know Bill's playing, and I think he knows my playing from some years. Therefore, I have very high hopes for the collaboration.

Have you guys had a chance to play together since you've known each other?

Not at all. Never. Not one note. We're starting two days before the concert. It's basically two people coming together from really different parts of the musical galaxy and meeting in the middle in an exciting place. And I think that's part of the electricity of the moment. I think we have a certain commonality of musical spirit and musical aspiration that works very well for doing such a thing. As I said, it takes a lot of cojones to do this. But we're both known for that, and we're not of afraid.

Do you play any jazz?

I'm not claiming I'm a jazz player at all. I don't really know the jazz idiom other than very superficially. The things that Bill has sent me, we'll probably do the structure... [it] will be fairly clearly decided. The stuff he's sent me is not so far out of... and, like some of the stuff I've sent him is not going to be way out in left field for him to do. I'm hoping we some of the violin duets of the great Italian composer Luciano Berio. I hope we'll do a number too by the Robert Beaser, a great young American composer, and, of course, I plan to play some Bach with Bill because Bach is so universally known.

Of all the great classical composers, Bach is the most jazzy or the most related to the jazz style of improvisation. A baroque composer partly because of the way he uses harmonic sequences and things like that in a really jazz-like kind of way. From the jazz side, we'll be doing some of Bill's stuff, and he's sent me some stuff from great jazz musicians in the past. And we might even do a little Foster. So there are a lot of places that we can very naturally meet in the middle. That's what we're going to be doing.

I've heard that Bach was quite the improviser?

Bach was unbelievable. All those great baroque musicians had such a tradition of improvisation and spontaneous playing that would probably put most of us to shame, even the greatest of greatest jazz players. Mozart was a great improviser. Beethoven was a great improver.

Many of them were great improvisers. Of course, when we say "improvisation," we make is sound like it's just come out of some dark hole in space, whereas we know even though you're improvising, you're improvising around patterns that are some extent known to you, and you have the occasional bursts where you get great new ideas you didn't have before.

But people who are improvisers still do rely on certain things that are already known to them. It's not like absolutely making everything up from zero. There are certain scales and patterns. They can play up and down a scale over this harmony, or another scale will work over this harmony. Within that material, they pick and choose what will be most appropriate at the time.

I'd imagine there's still a certain amount of improvisation that goes into playing classical, whether it be phrasing or...

Absolutely. If you're a good classical player, hopefully you're not utterly predictable. Hopefully you're capable varying things each time you play them. That's what interests me.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon

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