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Bill Frisell Q&A with Premier Guitar

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"They're sort of floating around out there, and we don't even know where they're coming from or how far they are or what's going on." Bill Frisell is talking about melodies and stars, but what he's saying illustrates a lot about his sound. From the tones he conjures out of his guitar to his improvisational vocabulary, Frisell draws from ideas that seem to be floating around in the musical cosmos. At any moment, he can sound equally referential to early rock 'n' roll, classic country, jazz of all eras, and the cutting edge of experimentalism, but he always sounds completely personal and instantly identifiable.

Frisell thrives on fitting his sound into unique musical situations, which can range from playing alongside jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd to the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh to doom-metal lords Earth. Variety seems to dictate many of the guitarist's artistic choices, and his discography is full of a wide range of highly focused projects, from his early avant-garde-quartet releases on ECM Records to country and bluegrass-tinged projects like Nashville and The Willies to his world-music album The Intercontinentals or his recent take on classic motion picture themes, When You Wish Upon a Star.

For his newest release, Music IS, Frisell has chosen to make a return to solo guitar. He's explored solo music throughout his recording career, starting with the four solo pieces on his debut album, 1983's In Line. He returned to the idea on 2000's Ghost Town, which featured layers of guitars and bass ruminating on dark Americana themes, and then took a much different approach on 2013's Silent Comedy, freely improvising in the studio.

Music IS feels like a culmination of those previous efforts. While many of the pieces feature carefully layered guitar parts, there is an openness to Frisell's playing and choice of tone that feels live and spontaneous. Despite referring to solo playing as an "ongoing challenge," Frisell sounds at home on the album's 15 tracks-some of which are new compositions and many of which are new versions of tunes that he's recorded in other formats on previous albums. "It was like seeing it as if someone else had written it, so I was almost learning it for the first time all over again, or seeing things that I never knew were there," he told Premier Guitar during our phone interview, explaining why the tunes on his new album sound as fresh as ever.

"I was just so terrified to sit there and try to play alone. It was like torture or something. I swore I would never do it again."

Music IS is warm and welcoming, much like the man himself, and Frisell has plenty of stories to share. We discussed his ideas about playing solo, why it was time for another solo guitar outing, the cool things about getting older, finding guitars with a story, and more.     Photo by Monica Jane Frisell

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