An interview with Bill Frisell about the FreshGrass Commission
When I talked with Bill Frisell this summer, he was still piecing together the melodic ideas and snippets that he will cohere into a solid composition for a premiere this November 12 at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. The special piece in question is the result of a $25,000 commission granted to him by my employer, the FreshGrass Foundation, in its first year of offering the FreshGrass Commission.
The Commission isn't just a nice chunk of money – allowing an artist the time and focus to create something truly memorable and meaningful – but also comes with the freedom of artistic exploration. For Frisell, that meant pulling together a nontraditional band (guitar, bass, baritone guitar, cello, and voice) of players he knows and respects well. His inspiration included, among other things, Ralph Stanley, though Frisell isn't what most people would call a bluegrass player. As he told me, musical styles are mostly meaningless since, if you dig back far enough, they all connect somewhere anyway. But American music, he said, is in him, and I reckon few would argue with Bill Frisell on that fact.
So what does he have in store for this performance? That's where our brief conversation began.
Kim Ruehl: What are you creating for the commission? Have you ever been commissioned for something like this before?
Bill Frisell: Off and on. As I get older these things seem to crop up more and more. I feel like I’m in a postion now where these opportunities present themselves, leading me into places I never would’ve gone on my own.
Are you going bluegrass for this?
No – no.
I always get uncomfortable with whatever name you put [on it]. You put this sort of box on it – Americana or bluegrass or jazz or rock – that’s always felt uncomfortable [to me]. There's no escaping that all of that music – American music – is in what I do. It’s my life. But I’m not thinking in a style or anything; I’m just trying to write some new music.
It’s gonna be myself, playing electric guitar – which, if you’re talking about old-time or bluegrass music, right away that’s not a common instrument. Certainly the guitar [is in those styles of music], and so much of what I play on the guitar is coming from that music. So I guess it’s more in the spirit of [those styles].
There’ll also be Luke Bergman – a guy I’ve been playing with more recently, that I met here in Seattle. He'll be playing bass and guitar, and baritone guitar.
See, for me there’s all these connections that maybe [other people] don’t make, if [they] just look at the instruments. I don’t know if it makes sense for other people but it makes sense for me. But Petra Haden is going to be singing, and that’s another person I’ve been playing with for – well, it’s getting into decades now. I’ve known her for a really long time. She’s the daughter of Charlie Haden, the bass player. So [she has] serious roots into this music.
You know, Charlie Haden sat on Mother Maybell’s lap and sang with his family on radio shows [when he was] growing up. Petra has sung a lot of that music she learned from her father – Ralph Stanley songs, and stuff like that.
Then Hank Roberts is playing the cello [for this]. There’s not a traditional instrumentation, but I think [traditional American] music is just in there, amongst us, if that makes any sense.
Absolutely. I didn't come from bluegrass at all and I'm certainly no bluegrass historian. But I’ve learned about bluegrass on the job over the last decade or so, and but it seems to me that the Blue Grass Boys were playing the instruments that they played, and the music that came of it was basically a version of jazz on country instruments. People have added other instruments to the mix through the years, but that’s the spirit of the thing.
What I love, if you go back far enough in the history of anything, the connections just become more and more strong. The lines between this and that become much more blurred.
What’s jazz and what’s blues and what’s country and what’s rock? It’s really all about people playing together. It’s pretty simple. It’s not much more complicated than that.
It’s people learning from each other. Bill Monroe had to learn that stuff from someone else. Everybody’s just passing it along.
At this point [in this commission], I’m basing this more on the people I picked. This is an incredible opportunity to try something new with this group of people that I’m super close with. All these musicians are like my family, but we’ve never played in this combination before. I’ve played with all of them but they’ve never played with each other. So I’m looking at this as a chance to mix it all up and see what happens.
You’re the first person to receive this commission. Have you thought at all about what kind of bar you want to set? Has that even entered your mind?
[Laughs.] The bar is already set so high that you could never get there.
I wake up every day and it’s like, 'Oh my god, what am I gonna do now?'
All I can do is keep trying to get close to something, you know. I’ll never get all the way there. There’s just so much … as far as setting a bar, there is a bar and it's just way too high for me to ever get there. I’m not going to be the one that sets it; I’ll tell you that. I’m just strumming away, thinking about it and working at it.
So what should folks expect?
I’m not quite sure how it’s gonna all pan out. The process I go through is pretty haphazard. I wake up every day and I just try to [play]. I don’t practice my instrument the way I used to many years ago. It’s more like writing or almost like drawing. I try to write down these little melodies or pieces ... I write music. I accumulate lots of stuff and, whatever comes out, I try not to edit it while I’m doing it. I try to not decide whether it’s good or bad.
Right now I’m in the midst of accumulating lots and lots of little things. Soon it’ll get to the point of trying to zero in on the real work. [Then] I actually have to commit to melodies [and] tunes. It’s more like editing all the material and then seeing what it sound slike.
[This piece is] still in an early stage for me. It’s coming up quicker than I thought.
I haven't even figured out … Petra, where she’s singing – I’ve never written lyrics. At this point I’m thinking of her more like one of the instruments. I don’t want to rule out anything, but I’m not sure it’s going to be any actual text or words.
Also, we’re going to do the commissioned piece as just part of the concert, so the rest of the concert is going to be whatever we want to do. For that, I think we’ll do folk songs or protest songs or things I’ve done with [these musicians] before. So I’m looking at the night as a whole: there’s the commissioned piece and then whatever else we do. I’m trying to find a way to balance that out into one whole night of music.
Tickets for this event are available here now. Also on the bill is Aoife O'Donovan, a FreshGrass Festival regular of sorts whom the foundation commissioned earlier this year to write a score for a classic silent short film. She premiered that piece at last weekend's FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCA and will be delivering an encore performance of it – along with a set of her other work – this night. Quiles & Cloud, who won the FreshGrass Award for Best Duo in 2015, will round out the bill.