Pushing Off the Edge of What You Know
Bill Frisell has been expanding the boundaries of what constitutes jazz for more than four decades. He doesn’t borrow directly from other styles so much as absorb the essence of those styles into his music organically, while at the same time relying on serendipity to add transcendent touches to his studio and live performance.
“For me, the music is always about pushing off the edge of what you know, especially when performing live,” he says. “I want there to be some risk in it because that’s the point where it’s the most inspiring, when you’re off into this zone where you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m trying to be in that space with the music all the time.”
In this interview the venerable guitarist shares his perspective on that space and other aspects of creativity and his creative process.
Frisell’s most recent release, Harmony [Blue Note], features vocalist Petra Haden, cellist and vocalist Hank Roberts, and guitarist, bassist, vocalist Luke Bergman. Valentine [Blue Note], a trio album with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, is scheduled for release on August 14 of this year.
What does the word “creativity” bring to mind?
When you are a little child and you discover something for the first time, you think, “Wow, this is the most amazing thing.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to stay in touch with whatever child is left in me. I think about that a lot, that rush you get when you’re discovering something for the first time. I practice and prepare and do all this work, but it’s like I’m preparing to be ready for the unknown. With whatever groups I play with, the idea isn’t to rehearse and make everything perfect and then go out and perform that fixed thing. The reason to practice and prepare is so you can take risks. I don’t know if that’s what creativity is, but it’s just trying to stay in that place of uncertainty.
Is there also a downside to that uncertainty?
Sometimes it’s uncomfortable or you want to fall back on stuff you know. And you also have to be okay with making mistakes. Mistakes can be amazing if you don’t panic when they happen and are open to checking out what they actually are. Sometimes the “mistake” itself can be something beautiful that you hadn’t thought of, or it can just be something you’re going to have to deal with and you’re going to learn from trying to make it right. That approach only really works, though, if everyone you are playing with has the attitude that it’s okay to make mistakes, and you’re looking out for, and not judging, each other. So, if somebody goes off the rails, you either go with them or you rescue them by somehow making it sound good.
I recently read a quote from Herbie Hancock when he was playing with Miles Davis. He said one night he played some chord that was just so wrong and, in that moment, he thought he’d totally screwed up, but it didn’t faze Miles at all. Miles heard the chord and played something that made it sound right. Anyway, that kind of trust and openness definitely has something to do with keeping the creativity thing going.
On the other hand, the biggest trap can also happen with a band. If you have one night that’s amazing, and you think, “Wow, what we played on that tune was unbelievable, we did stuff we’ve never done before, it was incredible,” when you get to the next night you have to forget that ever happened, because if you try to get back to that it’s a recipe for disappointment. Because that means you’re not there in the moment. You’re thinking about, “Oh, that was so cool last night and I’m going to try to do that again.” But it’s not going to be coming from the place where it’s supposed to be coming from.
How about when you are composing?
You can’t wait for the inspiration. You can’t sit there and think, “I’m going to wait until I’m inspired and then I’m going to write something.” You just have to begin. You have to just do the work, without judging whatever it is you’re doing. And if you are lucky then sometimes something takes over.
When I so-called “write” music, I try to just sit there and play my guitar. I’ve spent years trying to get to a point where I don’t judge what I’m writing while I’m writing, because that blocks it. That’s not the time to make decisions about whether it is good or bad because doing so will stop the process. So, I try to just keep going and write and write and write. Then something will happen.
I might also try to sort of trick myself if I would really like to spend time working on something and I’m not feeling inspired. For example, I might come up with some kind of exercise, just write down a scale or something, and that will get me to the table. Then, while I’m doing the exercise, I may find myself writing a melody instead, and suddenly I’m there.
I often think of Sonny Rollins, who for me is such a master, with incredible wisdom, and also humility. I was just listening to an interview with him, and here you have one of the greatest musicians that’s ever walked the face of the earth, but he doesn’t think so. All he’s doing is trying to learn how to get better. Every word out of his mouth is so amazing, but it always comes down to something like, “Just practice, and don’t worry about all the other stuff.” He also said, “The music is happening too fast for you to be thinking about it. You can’t think about music and play it at the same time.”
Might one way to look at that be that the flow of creative energy is happening really quickly and feeling is happening almost as fast, so you can feel deeply without necessarily interrupting the flow of the creative energy—but thinking happens so slowly in comparison that if you “stop to think” it’s over?
Yeah, yeah. You need to think and to prepare, but at some point, you have to let that go. It’s like if you were riding a bike and you thought, “I’m going to push the left pedal down, and now I’m going to relax my left foot as my right foot is tensing up, and now I’m going to lean just a little bit to the left—you’d be off in a ditch in no time..
Does the creative energy feel like it’s coming from within you or outside of you or neither of those things?
Oh, man. That’s what I really don’t know. It’s weird. There are definitely times when I’ll be playing and I’ll suddenly realize like, “Holy shit, I just played some incredible thing that I’ve never played before in my life, and I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” and I could have been in that zone for who knows how long—but just as soon as I become aware of what I’m doing, the whole thing falls apart immediately.
About seven years ago I had the most incredible day with my daughter. She was working at an art center way up in the middle of nowhere in Northern Vermont and I visited her there. We spent a really nice day together and after dinner we decided to play ping-pong. We started hitting the ball back and forth, just playing and not keeping score, and then we said, “Okay. Let’s try to get up to 100 without messing up.” We would start, counting one, two, three, and get up to 21 or 22 before messing up, and that went on for a long time. We were just about ready to give up when we got to 85, 86, 87, and then 103, 104, 105. We were suddenly in this zone where we weren’t trying or judging and it was the most amazing feeling. But at the very moment we got to 608, I thought to myself, “Wow, I bet we can get to 1,000,” and the moment that thought came into my mind—bam. It just ruined everything.
Is creativity an innate ability that some people just have, or is it something that you can learn and cultivate?
I think it is just part of being a human being and everyone has it, but there are infinite ways that it can come out. That can be making music or some other art, but it can also be the way you mow the lawn or wash the dishes. When kids ask me for advice about playing music, my advice is basically just to do what you love and don’t be afraid. Part of what keeps people from being creative is being afraid to show who they really are, and trying to be someone they aren’t. I know that I used to spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought or trying to be hip. I probably still do [laughs]. Everybody has their own story and their own voice, and everybody has something to put out there.
Circling back to whether creativity comes from within or some external source, some artists who were active during the 1960s talk about being able to access a really powerful creative force that was surging at the time and influencing all the arts, and then at one point it was no longer there in the same way. What do you make of that?
I was born in 1951, so I definitely think about that period. I grew up as rock and roll was being born, and the time that I was really getting fired up about music was when I was around 12 or 13 and heard The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and stuff like that. Then, just the way my age lined up with these extraordinary things that were happening in music, I feel really lucky that I was around at that time.
Taking New York as an example, I recently read Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, and A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, which are about the late ’50s and early ’60s in New York City. I’m fascinated by that time and place. You had Monk at the Five Spot and Ornette and Morton Feldman and de Kooning and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan and all these other painters and writers and other artists. It’s sort of as if that period in New York was the United States version of Paris in the 1920s.
Of course, I’d like to think that although things have changed in New York City, that kind of creativity hasn’t just gone away.