For his final shows before the pandemic, Bill Frisell was touring U.S. jazz clubs with his new quartet, HARMONY: Frisell on electric guitar, along with the great, dramatic singer Petra Haden, Hank Roberts on cello and Luke Bergman on baritone guitar. When I saw them in Baltimore, on the first night of March 2020, they seemed to be in a set-long mind-meld. HARMONY is a quiet group, and though each musician is masterly, their goal is to honor the concept the project is named after. Nothing is high-pitched, no instrument overwhelms the others; they play to blend. Bergman and Roberts added their own background vocals at times, and Frisell glided around all their melodies with his electric guitar, sometimes doubling Haden’s vocal parts, sometimes building drama on his own. At moments — especially when they played old songs like “Red River Valley” or “Hard Times Come Again No More” — they sounded like a chamber group gathered around a prairie campfire.
Frisell turns 70 this month, and at this point, innovation and exploration are so fundamental to his musical identity that even a small, unflashy band where everyone sings except him still beams with his sensibility. HARMONY’s self-titled debut album — released in 2019, the guitarist’s first record as a leader for Blue Note in his 40-year career — contained the same genre-indeterminate mix of music that’s typical of Frisell: jazz standards, show tunes, old folk songs and haunting, melodic originals.
In Baltimore, HARMONY closed with a song the group hasn’t recorded but Frisell has played often over the past few years. It’s an uncomplicated tune with a very deep history. Musicologists have traced its origin to an 18th-century hymn, and a version of it was likely sung by enslaved laborers. It was a union song too, sung by striking workers in the ’40s, around the time Pete Seeger first heard it and helped spread it to the folk-festival audiences of the ’60s. The civil rights movement, starting with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, adopted it as an unofficial anthem, making it famous enough that President Johnson quoted its title in his 1965 call for the Voting Rights Act. In all of these cases — and also in Tiananmen Square, Soweto and the many other sites of protest where it has been heard — “We Shall Overcome” has been more a statement of collective hope than a call to arms. It is a proclamation of faith.
Frisell told me that, musically speaking, he likes the song because of how deeply he has internalized it. “Like when you’re walking and humming or whistling, almost unconscious that you’re doing it — that’s what you want,” he says. “That’s what ‘We Shall Overcome’ is. It’s in us, the melody and the words. When I play it, the song is like a jungle gym you can play around in. The song is there, and you can take off anywhere.”
In Baltimore, Frisell and his bandmates moved through “We Shall Overcome” with joyful purpose, Frisell improvising while all three vocalists joined together. I didn’t know it then, but this would be my last ticketed concert before venues across the country went dark. The last thing I experienced in a full club was Petra Haden raising her hands high and compelling us all — Frisell now included — to sing together for our deliverance.
Had things gone as planned, Frisell’s next move would have been to focus on a new group, this one nominally a jazz trio, with the bassist Thomas Morgan and the drummer Rudy Royston. Things, of course, did not go as planned. Frisell’s datebook was soon filled with canceled gigs. “It’s been kind of traumatic,” he told me via Zoom, though his ever-present smile never quite wavered. But the new trio’s debut album did eventually come out, in August 2020. It closes with its own version of “We Shall Overcome” — this one instrumental, pastoral in its feeling, a soul ballad at the end of a record spent rambling around the outskirts of high-lonesome country and spacious modern jazz.
Royston and Morgan are well established in their own careers, but they’re both younger than Frisell, and each came up in a wide-open jazz world that Frisell helped create. In the early 1980s, Frisell began incorporating digital loops and other effects into his live and recorded playing and wound up crafting an entirely new role for the electric guitar in a jazz setting: creating atmospheres full of sparkling reverb, echoing harmonics, undulating whispers that sneak in from outside the band. As he wove those patches of sound around a trio, with the drummer Paul Motian and the saxophonist Joe Lovano, he brought a new spaciousness and pensiveness to the instrument, completely resetting its dynamic range. His quietest playing was like a distant radio; his loudest was a heavy-metal scream that could sit neatly beside, for instance, the Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid on a 1985 duet album, “Smash & Scatteration.”
Frisell’s approach to his repertoire was just as innovative. He knew his standards but gained an early reputation for openness to pop music and just about anything else — most famously on his 1992 record “Have a Little Faith,” which features everything from a small-group orchestration of an Aaron Copland ballet score to the same band’s searing instrumental version of Madonna’s “Live to Tell.” There was a similar adventurousness in his originals: Across the ’90s, he composed for violin and horns (on “Quartet”), for bluegrass musicians (on “Nashville”), for film scores and for installation soundtracks.
This is Frisell’s great accomplishment: He makes a guitar sound so unique that it can fit with anything. This became fully clear around the turn of this century, when his records skipped from improvised bluegrass to “The Intercontinentals” — which featured a band of Greek, Malian, American and Brazilian musicians — and then through to “Unspeakable,” a sample-based record made with the producer Hal Willner, a friend since 1980. Willner also introduced Frisell to artists like Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello and Allen Ginsberg, three of many legends who have invited Frisell into the studio to add his signature to their recordings. Every year of this century, he has appeared on or led a new record, often several records, and yet it would be impossible for even the most obsessive fan to guess what the next one might sound like.
Frisell has largely swapped his old dynamic range for a stylistic one: He doesn’t play as loud these days, but he plays everything, and with everyone. He is on the young side of jazz-elder-statesman status, but in the past four decades, no one else has taken the collaborative, improvisational spirit of that music to so many places.
And now, like so many of us, he’s just at home. “I shouldn’t be complaining,” he told me, from the house in Brooklyn that he shares with his wife. “I’m healthy, I have my guitar. But my whole life has been about interacting musically with somebody else.” At one point he held up a stack of notebooks and staff-paper pads: “What am I gonna do with this stuff?” he asked. “Usually I’ll write enough, and I’ll get a group together and make a record. But that’s after like a week or two of writing. Now it’s a year or more of ideas.”
He has played a few outdoor shows in front yards with his longtime collaborators Kenny Wollesen on drums and Tony Scherr on bass. He has played similar gigs with Morgan and Royston. He has performed streamed concerts, including a recent Tyshawn Sorey show, at the Village Vanguard, with Lovano. Frisell has mourned too: Hal Willner died from Covid-19 in April, right after the two were discussing their next collaboration. And he has practiced — as if he were back in high school, he says, working through songs from his favorite records in his bedroom. Often they’re the same ones he practiced in the mid-1960s, from Thelonious Monk to “Stardust.”
But that is the extent of recent musical connection for a guy who describes playing guitar as his preferred method of “speech” — a guy who got a guitar in 1965 and, since joining his first garage band, has rarely gone a day without playing with somebody else.
Frisell says he can’t remember when he first heard “We Shall Overcome,” but it would have been sometime during his school days in Denver. “I grew up in a time with a music program in public schools,” he told me. “I’m in seventh grade, and that song was coming around that time. And my English teacher, Mr. Newcomb, is playing us Bob Dylan records, because he said it was like poetry. This was 1963, ’64. On TV you see ‘Hootenanny’ along with Kennedy’s assassination. January 1964, I saw M.L.K. speak at our church. A couple weeks before that, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ came out. Then a couple weeks after that, the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. It was in the air.”
The neighborhood he grew up in, he told me, was very “Leave It to Beaver” and overwhelmingly white. It was Denver East High School, and its band threw him together with a wider group of kids, including the future Earth, Wind & Fire members Andrew Woolfolk, Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn. “When Martin Luther King was killed, our high school concert band was performing and the principal came in and told everyone,” Frisell says. “It was horrible. I was in the band room, with Andrew Woolfolk, with my Japanese-American friend whose parents were in the internment camps, and we were comforting each other.” It gave him the sense that music transcended personal differences and that the camaraderie shared by collaborators was a model for other forms of strife. “From that time, I carry with me this idea that the music community is ahead of its time trying to work things out.”
“We Shall Overcome” became a regular part of his repertoire in 2017. It’s not the first time he has gone through a phase of ruminating on a particular tune, working through it in different settings: Surely no one else has recorded so many versions of “Shenandoah,” and he played “A Change Is Gonna Come” a lot during the George W. Bush presidency. But as we moved through the past four years, he was drawn back to “We Shall Overcome,” this tune from his childhood. “I was just trying to make a small hopeful statement,” he says. He didn’t know that by the time his trio released the song on their debut, it would be the summer of the George Floyd protests and John Lewis’s death. They reminded him, he says, that “We Shall Overcome” is “one of those songs that is always relevant. That song kind of sums it up. Every time I think about giving up, there are these people like John Lewis — we owe it to them to keep going and trying.”
Frisell appeared on at least nine albums in 2020, including his trio’s “Valentine,” records from Elvis Costello and Ron Miles and Laura Veirs, tributes to the music of T. Rex and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and “Americana,” a collaboration with the Swiss harmonica player Grégoire Maret and the French pianist Romain Collin. “Americana” is the closest to a “typical” Frisell album, meaning it features not just his languid, layered playing but also his heart-tugging sense of emotional drama. The tempos are slow, and the track list includes recognizable pop covers, such as “Wichita Lineman” and Bon Iver’s “Re: Stacks.”
The album is improvisational, but it’s cozier and more melodic than most contemporary jazz. This is another mode that Frisell pioneered. If you watch solemn documentaries about heartland struggles or are familiar with public radio’s interstitial music, you’ve heard his influence. Younger guitarists in the cosmic-country realm, like William Tyler and Steve Gunn, also have a bit of Frisell’s unassuming lope. He’s one of the quietest guitar heroes in the instrument’s history.
His only trick, as he explains it, is “trying to stay connected to this sense of wonder and amazement. That’s where it helps to have other people. Even just one other person. If I play by myself or write a melody, it’s one thing. But if I give it to someone else, they’re going to play it slower, faster, suddenly you’re off into the zone. Being off the edge of what you know, that’s the best place.”
This attitude has earned him a lifetime spent on stages and records with artists that he revered and studied as a boy, jazz players like Ron Carter, Charles Lloyd and Jack DeJohnette. But now that this journey is on pause, for the first time in 55 years, it’s as though Frisell has no choice but to take stock of what he has learned from these artists and his relationship with their legacies. “It’s just overwhelming what we owe to Black people,” he said at one point in our conversation. “Our culture, we would be nothing. Nothing. But personally, too.” He recalled, again, his teenage years: “In Denver, I was always welcomed into it. It didn’t matter that I was white. I remember a great tenor player named Ron Washington. He was in a big band where you just read the charts, and I could do that and get through the gig. An agent set up those gigs, and he called me once, and I showed up, but it wasn’t the big band. It was just Ron, a drummer and me. I didn’t know any tunes at all.” He laughed again, then described something reminiscent of the second verse of “We Shall Overcome,” the one about walking hand in hand: “Ron was so cool. He just said, ‘Let’s play a blues.’ Then another. And another. He led me through.”
John Lingan is the author of “Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk.” Celina Pereira is a Brazilian-American graphic designer and artist based in Los Angeles.