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Bill Frisell

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Bill Frisell
Frisell in 2021
Frisell in 2021
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Richard Frisell
Born (1951-03-18) March 18, 1951 (age 73)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
GenresJazz, jazz fusion, folk jazz, Americana, classical
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger
Years active1978–present
LabelsECM, Elektra, Nonesuch

William Richard Frisell (born March 18, 1951) is an American jazz guitarist.[1] He first came to prominence at ECM Records in the 1980s, as both a session player and a leader.[2] He went on to work in a variety of contexts, notably as a participant in the Downtown Scene in New York City, where he formed a long working relationship with composer and saxophonist John Zorn.[3] He was also a longtime member of veteran drummer Paul Motian's groups from the early 1980s until Motian's death in 2011. Since the late 1990s, Frisell's output as a bandleader has also integrated prominent elements of folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and Americana. He has six Grammy nominations and one win.[4]


Early life and career[edit]

Frisell was born in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, but spent most of his youth in the Denver, Colorado area.[1] He studied clarinet with Richard Joiner of the Denver Symphony Orchestra as a youth, but by his teens was more interested in guitar. He graduated from Denver East High School and went to the University of Northern Colorado to study music.[1] At UNC, he took a class taught by guitarist Johnny Smith. However, Frisell later reported the class effectively became private lessons from Smith because the emphasis on music theory "was too much for everyone else—they didn't want to be learning scales and inversions."[5]

His original guitar teacher in the Denver-Aurora metropolitan area was Dale Bruning, with whom Frisell released the 2000 duo album Reunion. After graduating from Northern Colorado, Frisell went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston,[1] where he studied with Jon Damian and Jim Hall.

ECM Records years[edit]

Frisell's major break came when guitarist Pat Metheny was unable to make a recording session and recommended Frisell to Paul Motian, who was recording Psalm (1982) for ECM Records.[6] Frisell became ECM's in-house guitar player through the 1980s and worked on several albums, including notably Jan Garbarek's 1982 Paths, Prints. Frisell's first release under his name was In Line (1983), which featured a solo guitar as well as duets with bassist Arild Andersen.[7]

New York City era[edit]

In the 1980s, Frisell moved to Hoboken, New Jersey and was active in the New York jazz scene.[8] He forged an early partnership with John Zorn—including as a member of avant-garde jazz band Naked City—and performed or recorded with many others. He also played in Paul Motian's trio, along with saxophonist Joe Lovano.[9]

Frisell organized a regular working group in the mid-1980s consisting of Kermit Driscoll on bass, Joey Baron on drums, and Hank Roberts on cello (later reduced to a trio when Roberts left). For studio projects, this group was regularly joined by other musicians.

Seattle years[edit]

In 1988, Frisell left New York City and moved to Seattle, Washington.[10] In the early 1990s Frisell made two of his best-reviewed albums: first, Have a Little Faith,[1] an ambitious survey of Americana of all stripes, from Charles Ives and Aaron Copland (the entirety of Billy the Kid) to John Hiatt (the title song), Bob Dylan ("Just Like a Woman") and Madonna (a lengthy, psychedelic rock-tinged version of "Live to Tell"); and second, This Land, a complementary set of originals. During this time, he performed with many musicians, including up-and-coming performers such as Douglas September on the album 10 Bulls. He also branched out by performing soundtracks to silent films of Buster Keaton with his trio and contributed to Ryuichi Sakamoto's album Heartbeat.

In the mid-1990s, Frisell disbanded his trio. He continued the trend marked by Have a Little Faith by more explicitly incorporating elements of bluegrass and country music into his music. His friendship with Gary Larson led him to provide music for the TV version of The Far Side[11] (released on the album Quartet along with music written for Keaton's Convict 13 ). Since 2000, Frisell has lived on Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle.[10]

2000 to present[edit]

Frisell with the B3 Trio at Jazz Alley, Seattle in 2004

Several of Frisell's songs, including his recording of "Over the Rainbow" and "Coffaro's Theme," originally composed in 1995 for an Italian movie, La scuola, were featured in the film Finding Forrester in 2000.

In 1999 Frisell was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to compose Blues Dream, which he premiered on November 15, 1999. He later recorded the work for a 2001 release on Nonesuch. Also in 1999, he released The Sweetest Punch, which featured a seven-piece jazz ensemble reworking the tunes written and recorded by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach on Painted from Memory.[12]

Between 2003 and 2005, Frisell acted as musical director for Century of Song, a series of concerts at the German Ruhrtriennale arts festival (produced by Lee Townsend). Frisell invited artists including Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, Petra Haden, Jenny Scheinman , Suzanne Vega, Arto Lindsay, Loudon Wainwright III, Vic Chesnutt, Van Dyke Parks, Buddy Miller, Ron Sexsmith and Chip Taylor to perform their favorite songs in new arrangements.[citation needed]

In 2003 Frisell's The Intercontinentals was nominated for a Grammy award; he won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for his album Unspeakable. His 2008 album History, Mystery was nominated for a 2009 Grammy award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group.[13] Frisell was also a judge for the sixth annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists careers.[14]

Frisell has united with Matt Chamberlain, Tucker Martine, and Lee Townsend in the Floratone band, and they released an album on Blue Note (2007) featuring guest performances of Viktor Krauss, Ron Miles and Eyvind Kang.

In 2008 Frisell performed as a featured guest on Earth's album The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull. In 2009 Frisell featured in a duet rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" with singer-songwriter Sam Shrieve. The recording was released on Shrieve's debut album Bittersweet Lullabies.

In 2010 Frisell started working with the Savoy Jazz label and released Beautiful Dreamers in August 2010, then a second release of Sign of Life in April 2011. Also, on January 25, 2011, Frisell and Vinicius Cantuária released Lágrimas Mexicanas on the E1 label.

In June 2011, Frisell, Lee Townsend, and their frequent collaborator, Vinicius Cantuaria, participated in TEDx GoldenGateED's program, "Teaching Compassion" in Oakland, California. Frisell and Cantuaria performed separately, and Townsend assisted with the technical aspects of the event.[15] In September 2011, Frisell released All We Are Saying, a full-length offering of his interpretations of John Lennon's music. Frisell's quintet includes violinist Jenny Scheinman, pedal steel and acoustic guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen. In 2017, Frisell received an honorary doctorate of music from his alma mater, Berklee College of Music.[16]

In 2021 a video was recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York and was published by Blue Note Records on YouTube.[17]


Frisell performing in 2010 at the Moers Festival


Title Year Label
In Line 1983 ECM
Rambler 1985 ECM
Lookout for Hope 1988 ECM
Before We Were Born 1989 Nonesuch
Is That You? 1990 Nonesuch
Where in the World? 1991 Nonesuch
Have a Little Faith 1992 Nonesuch
This Land 1994 Nonesuch
Go West: Music for the Films of Buster Keaton 1995 Nonesuch
The High Sign/One Week: Music for the Films of Buster Keaton 1995 Nonesuch
Live 1995 Gramavision
Quartet 1996 Nonesuch
Nashville 1997 Nonesuch
Gone, Just Like a Train 1998 Nonesuch
Good Dog, Happy Man 1999 Nonesuch
The Sweetest Punch 1999 Decca
Ghost Town 2000 Nonesuch
Blues Dream 2001 Nonesuch
With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones 2001 Nonesuch
The Willies 2002 Nonesuch
The Intercontinentals 2003 Nonesuch
Unspeakable 2004 Nonesuch
Richter 858 2005 Songlines
East/West 2005 Nonesuch
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian 2006 Nonesuch
History, Mystery 2008 Nonesuch
Disfarmer 2009 Nonesuch
Beautiful Dreamers 2010 Savoy
Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartet 2011 Savoy
All We Are Saying 2011 Savoy
Silent Comedy 2013 Tzadik
Big Sur 2013 OKeh
Guitar in the Space Age! 2014 OKeh
When You Wish Upon a Star 2016 OKeh
Small Town 2017 ECM
Music IS 2018 OKeh[18]
Epistrophy 2019 ECM
Harmony 2019 Blue Note
Valentine 2020 Blue Note
Four 2022 Blue Note
Orchestras 2024 Blue Note


  1. ^ a b c d e Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. p. 494. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
  2. ^ Jazz, All About (April 26, 2011). "Bill Frisell: The ECM Years article @ All About Jazz". All About Jazz. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  3. ^ "Renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell plays residency at Great American Music Hall - CBS San Francisco". Cbsnews.com. May 1, 2023. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  4. ^ "Grammy Awards for Artist William Frisell". Grammy.com. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  5. ^ Frisell, Bill (2013). Bill Frisell Remembers Johnny Smith. JazzTimes.com
  6. ^ "Interviews". Jazzweekly.com. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
  7. ^ "Renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell plays residency at Great American Music Hall - CBS San Francisco". Cbsnews.com. May 1, 2023. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  8. ^ "Music Is Good: A Conversation with Bill Frisell". The Fretboard Journal: Keepsake magazine for guitar collectors. Archived from the original on December 14, 2014. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
  9. ^ "Renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell plays residency at Great American Music Hall - CBS San Francisco". Cbsnews.com. May 1, 2023. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  10. ^ a b Seven, Richard (April 22, 2001). "The Sound of One Man Dreaming". Pacific Northwest magazine. The Seattle Times. Archived from the original on August 10, 2007.
  11. ^ "Bill Frisell Biography". Billfrisell.com. Archived from the original on February 7, 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-08.
  12. ^ [1] Archived May 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ "Grammy Awards for Artist William Frisell". Grammy.com. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  14. ^ [2] Archived June 6, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "Bill Frisell's Video". Tedxgoldengateed.org. Archived from the original on December 21, 2014. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
  16. ^ "Berklee pays tribute to Bill Frisell and Michael Gibbs – The Boston Globe". BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved April 3, 2020.
  17. ^ "Village Vanguard – Jazz Club in New York | Portrait". 4attheclub.de (in German). Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  18. ^ "Music IS". Billfrisell.com. Archived from the original on March 16, 2018. Retrieved March 15, 2018.

External links[edit]