Jazz guitar ‘Musing poet’ lines up for Bray Jazz Festival
A few years ago I interviewed Justin Vernon, frontman and creative force behind the famous indie-folk band Bon Iver, while he was in Dublin playing at a festival. However, the subject of our conversation was not Vernon himself; he was a player and composer 30 years his senior who is widely associated with a style he doesn’t play – jazz. This musician was the American guitarist Bill Frisell.
The interview was part of my research for a biography I wrote about Frisell, which was just published by Faber, and in addition to discovering that Vernon was much more of a dedicated superfan than I ever imagined – he even has a tattoo on his upper back of one of his favorite Frisell tracks, That Was Then – the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has appeared to put Frisell on the top echelon of modern American music , up there, for example, with one of his greatest composer-geniuses, Duke Ellington.
“That comparison with Ellington, to me, puts Frisell in the right class and category; I think he’s very important,” Vernon told me. “What I love is that while Bill Frisell isn’t a household name, almost every serious musician knows who he is. Although Ellington was far more popular in his time than Frisell is in his, Bill’s influence and impact on music is perhaps just as profound.
Over the past 45 years, 41 albums as a frontman, appearances on over 300 recordings and countless tours and live performances – at the end of this month he is making one of his rare visits to Ireland to play at the Bray Jazz Festival – Bill Frisell has established himself as one of the most innovative and important musicians at work today.
Composer and improviser
It’s true that 71-year-old Frisell is most often celebrated as a jazz player, composer and improviser. He has been called “jazz guitar’s dream poet” and hailed in The New York Times as “the most important and imitated guitarist to emerge in jazz since the early 1980s.” Frisell has topped jazz charts and polls, worked with many jazz greats, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
Frisell became the guitar’s most unlikely hero, a gentle iconoclast who looked beyond the genre to work in a new realm that thrillingly ignores categories and constraints.
“I’m actually okay with being described as a ‘jazz guitarist‘, and I respect that, and there’s definitely a lot to do in that form,” he says. “It’s just that when I think of some of the people who inspired me – Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis – for me, jazz is not so much a style as it is a way of thinking, a process of transformation of what surrounds you.. What bothers me is when the word is used to describe music that excludes something else; it’s like there are these rules that keep people apart. I’m just trying not to exclude anything.
The admirably open and adventurous approach to Frisell’s music is an important part of his wider appeal. His reach and dedication extend far beyond the free but sometimes introspective boundaries of jazz into a musical world shaped and inspired by a huge range of forms, from bluegrass to pop, from Americana to avant-garde. , from blues to West Africa, from folk to film music. , from ambient to alternative rock, from country to classical.
By so seamlessly and successfully synthesizing all of these styles and interests in his playing, the soft-spoken, self-effacing Frisell became the guitar’s most unlikely hero, a gentle iconoclast who looked beyond the genre to work in a new realm that ignores categories and constraints. He expanded and changed the sound of jazz, the sound of guitar, and the sound of American music.
“I just try to use what I know and put my own experience into what I do without limiting anything,” Frisell said. “For me, music has always been this world where everything is possible.”
A wonderfully diverse repertoire
The trio that Frisell brings to Bray is an excellent example of this musical philosophy. A nimble, longtime unit with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Trinity has the ability to take the music in any direction, at any time – to play a wonderfully diverse repertoire that ranges from gripping originals to Frisell to classic pop songs. , from jazz standards to traditional folk tunes, to upbeat movie themes, given our turbulent times, poignant versions of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, Burt Bacharach’s What the World Needs Now is Love and the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome.
Not only does Frisell’s inclusion continue a tradition at Bray Jazz of booking modern American jazz stars, but other Mermaid Arts Center headliners also spotlight some of Europe’s finest talent.
The defiance inherent in this last song somewhat echoes the attitude adopted by the organizers of the Bray Jazz Festival. The pandemic may have canceled the last two May bank holiday festivities, and this year the event has been scaled back, with fewer concerts and an emphasis on “quality over quantity,” but the small but perfectly formed festival of international reputation is back almost as strong as ever.
Not only does the inclusion of Bill Frisell continue a tradition at Bray Jazz, now in its 21st year, of booking leaders in modern American jazz – previous years have featured, among others, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, John Scofield and Steve Coleman – but other Mermaid Arts Center headliners also spotlight some of Europe’s finest talent.
The delicate and lyrical trio of Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen will no doubt draw inspiration from his excellent new ECM album, Opening, while the “psychedelic Arabic jazz” of British-Bahraini trumpet and flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed powerfully mixes improvisation, beats and electronics . The festival also continues to champion Irish musicians, from bassist and “godfather of Ireland’s contemporary jazz scene” Ronan Guilfoyle to future vocalist Aoife Doyle – both in stand-alone concerts and, as a bonus this year, opening for the main acts.
The reaction to the return of the festival has been very positive. “We expect the Bill Frisell concert and several others to sell out in advance,” says co-manager George Jacob. “There’s a big public appetite to get back to live music.”
Frisell noticed something similar. “I play a little differently, partly because of all the joy and energy of being able to go on tour after all this time,” he says. “It’s more intense, for us and for the public. I feel like it’s important that we’re all together again.
The Bill Frisell Trio plays at the Bray Jazz Festival (brayjazz.com) on Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m. Philip Watson’s biography, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music, is published by Faber. Watson will discuss Bill Frisell and the book at the Triskel Arts Center in Cork (triskelartscentre.ie) on Thursday 21 April at 7pm as part of the Cork World Book Fest (corkworldbookfest.com).