When Bill Frisell plays the Unity this Saturday, as a benefit for KGNU, he will be accompanied by only his guitar. Hardly an unheard-of gig for the storied guitarist/composer, but something he admits is still a bit of a challenge.
He is, after all, one of the instrument’s greatest conversationalists, a quiet virtuoso of deft touch and uncommon ear, fluent in a dialect based in jazz but inflected with roots of Americana, blues, rag and folk. We caught up with the guitarist last week and asked if the absence of that conversation with other players, a hallmark of his near 30-year recording career, makes the solo gig a lonely crusade.
“It’s just … a completely different situation for me,” Frisell admits. “I do thrive on having a conversation. … You put something out there, and then something comes back. And it just starts something that gets rolling and you find yourself lost in it.
“But when you’re alone, you put an idea out there … and then you’re, ‘Well, now what are you going to do?’ Nothing comes back. So, it’s a really different energy that happens. It can be really great to just go off and do whatever I want. I mean, I feel like I can do that in a group too, but when you’re alone, and you just go off and it’s working … it can be just fantastic.”
The Unity gig is a one-off for Frisell, who is gearing up for a tour with his latest trio — including violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston, two players with whom Frisell has had an episodic history for many years, but with whom he has never really solidified a sustained trio — supporting the release of his first recording for Savoy Jazz, Beautiful Dreamers, due out at the end of August. The title, of course, is borrowed from the Stephen Foster lullaby, a tune the trio covers on the CD with tender homage.
Even for a player like Frisell, who regularly digs deep into Americana for his evocative, small ensemble reinterpretations, Foster presents something of a challenge. While indisputably one of the flagstone figures of American song, his association with minstrelsy and his Civil War era orientation on race make him a problematic figure in contemporary analysis, especially in jazz music, which struggled so long under the bruising boot of Jim Crow.
“Yeah … I’m still sort of struggling with him,” Frisell says. “Like, what does it all mean? A lot of his songs I can’t really … I mean, the words get just messed up. I mean, there’s a lot of horrible stuff in there. … I guess, all I can say is that I avoid the songs that come across like that.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m not sure. I’ve played a few of those songs just because the melodies and the music is so beautiful. Those, more than anything, go all the way back to songs I can remember. I grew up in the ’50s in the middle of America, and you just heard them … like hearing my mother humming those songs while vacuuming the house. It’s just part of all of us.”
The title track, “Beautiful Dreamer,” is a dedication to an old friend of Frisell’s, Karle Seydel, Denver’s “urban gadfly” who was a community organizer and major figure in the development of Denver’s lower downtown and Coors Field, and who passed away at his home a couple of months ago.
“I met Karle when I was about 12 years old, and he was probably the first guy I played guitar with,” Frisell says. “He had an electric guitar before I had one. I used to go to his house all the time, and on weekends we’d go downtown to Larimer Street and hang out at all the pawn shops and look at the guitars. And he loved Larimer Street, way back before Larimer Square and all that, back when it was like Skid Row.
“He was just a really good friend and one of the really important people who encouraged me early on. He came to all my gigs whenever I came to Denver. And a couple of months ago, he just kind of … went away.”
Another dedication on the CD, “Better Than a Machine,” goes out to singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who passed away last Christmas Day. It is a curious piece, a Frisell original, a hypnotic slow build on a repeated riff that gives way to a broad and generous chorus, rock-like in its posture, almost an REM-meets- Talking Heads type of thing. It is, paradoxically, both exceptionally un-Frisell in demeanor, and one of the CD’s foundations.
We asked about it and he laughed. “I’m not even sure what it has to do with,” he says.
“The day that he died, it was kind of a weird day. I was in Europe and writing music, and because of the time difference, we were getting all these conflicting reports. Getting rumors and facts, we didn’t know what was happening. I mean, it was horrible … and it wasn’t until 7 in the morning the next day that we knew he was gone.
“But that day I was just sitting there writing music, and this is one of the pieces that came out. It’s sort of a strange tune because it doesn’t sound like a lot of things I do, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’d associate with him.
“And he was a friend of mine. I was so lucky to get to play with him a bunch of times.”
On the Bill
Bill Frisell plays Unity of Boulder on Saturday, Aug. 7. Show at 8 p.m. Janet Feder opens.
General admission tickets are $20 for KGNU members, $23 for non-members, and are available by calling the studio during business hours at 303-449- 4885. 2855 Folsom St., Boulder, 303-442-1411.