Slow and steady: How Bill Frisell and Ry Cooder made a lifelong impact on my music | Music
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Friday, November 20, 2015

Slow and steady: How Bill Frisell and Ry Cooder made a lifelong impact on my music

Posted by on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 11:21 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PAUL MOORE
  • Photo by Paul Moore
By the time I was 19 years old, my fate was sealed. A musician's life was knocking, and I was eager to answer.

But I had just started college, and with my small-town Wisconsin upbringing, I was only answering to the idea of a musician's life, something I wasn’t fully certain was even possible. Where I came from, there wasn’t a lot of precedent for professional artistry, so I couldn’t fully picture what it might look like, how I would live or if I could even hack it. Still, my college freshman self was following grand thoughts that were ever expanding outward. My friends and I had confidently found all the answers and assurances we needed in the recordings we worshiped and stole from. We practiced endlessly with a formative certainty about where we were headed.

As aspiring performers with a jazz-minded approach to discipline and mimicry, we often looked to heroes who could shred. It was natural as race cars, horses, roller coasters and time warps—going fast ruled. In my teenage years, my speedy superheroes were bebop pioneers like Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, funk captains like Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, rock virtuosos like Victor Wooten. My brother and I would listen to Wooten in amazement, the mere physical feats of his fingers making our mouths stand agape. That's the gist of the first part of a journey, the jaw-dropping amazement at what human beings are capable of accomplishing. We drilled scales and arpeggios in the same manner that someone would wake early to run distances and rep curls.

Then, we found Bill Frisell. Two decades later, I can tell you that finding his music was the most important shift in my understanding of what it actually means to answer the call of a musician's life. He could play something that spoke deeply to my experience with just a few notes, with space and patience. It slowed me down and helped me to understand that this life I’ve chosen is a journey, not a match. Listening to Frisell helped to calm that competitive energy—something that never came naturally to me, anyway. It gave permission to an approach I didn’t even know I was longing for. "Live fast and die young" could also be "Stop and look around once in awhile." 

Patience, however, is a continual goal, and I've felt this again and again. It's often just out of reach, but inherently requires trust in the unknown that lies ahead. We don't know what's coming around the bend, and that's a hard one to navigate. 

Bill Frisell is a man of very few words, as any interview from the last four decades will show. He's uncomfortable taking any kind of spotlight. His true voice is communicated through his instrument, through the notes he plays and those he doesn't. Frisell is a road trip buddy who quietly stares out the window from the backseat. You almost forget he's there until you ask him how he's doing and, following a pregnant pause, he simply says "...looking at the clouds..." Then you remember that there are clouds to look at. You take in the view and realize they're gorgeous. Picasso painted some of his finest works with only four lines. Musically, Frisell achieves the same.

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