UW News

November 5, 2013

‘Music is an infinite thing’: Jazz great Bill Frisell joins School of Music

News and Information

The Jazz Studies Program in the School of Music is making a down payment to help secure a bright future. It has lured Bill Frisell, one of modern jazz’s premier guitarists, to a position on the faculty that allows him to spend whatever time he has available in Seattle interacting with UW jazz students and faculty.

“I’ve been talking to Bill about this since I joined the faculty in 2007,” says Cuong Vu, head of jazz studies.  “For us — for Richard Karpen [director of the School of Music] and me — this was a no-brainer. Although Bill travels a lot and his time in Seattle is likely to be small initially, with a faculty appointment [as affiliate professor of music] he’ll be more likely to come to the UW. He’ll become more conscious of what we’re doing and is more likely to become a part of it.”

Man plays guitar

Bill Frisell, newly named affiliate professor of music, will interact with jazz students and faculty when he’s home in Seattle.Mary Levin/U of Washington

Frisell’s home is in Seattle, but most of his time is spent on the road. His website shows him crisscrossing the country over the next few months, playing mostly with his Big Sur Quintet, whose eponymously named album was recorded earlier this year.  Frisell’s musical energy is prodigious: He has released 10 albums over the past 2½ years. Critics have called him “the most eclectic and creative musician around.” His biography notes collaborators ranging from Burt Bacharach to Elvis Costello and the Brazilian singer-songwriter Vinicius Centuaria.

Frisell’s music has its roots in the improvisatory nature of jazz, but his sources of inspiration come from a broad spectrum.  A New York Times article noted, “It is hard to find a more fruitful meditation on American music than in the compositions of guitarist Bill Frisell. Mixing rock and country with jazz and blues, he’s found what connects us: improvisation and a sense of play. Unlike other pastichists, who tend to duck passion, Mr. Frisell plays up the pleasure in the music and also takes on an often-avoided subject, tenderness.”

Frisell, 62, is looking forward to working more with students.  “Every day with my music now I don’t feel any different than I did when I was 12 years old. Music is an infinite thing. We all struggle to move ahead and find out what to do. I learn by playing and talking about the music, and I will get as much from the students as they might get from me. Someone asks me a good question and I re-evaluate — it helps me focus on the problems I’m having on my musical journey. It’s not like I’m teaching: we’re all in the same boat.

“I’ve lived in Seattle since 1989, but I travel so much. This opportunity will help me develop deeper connections in town. I see a growing community of musicians here; even those who move away are coming back.  With Cuong’s leadership and Richard’s vision, with the Café Racer sessions, they’re creating a stronger web of connections. It helps brings different scenes together. Those convergences are exciting.”

Vu has known Frisell for over a decade. “I’m a huge fan of his music. He was an important voice in my musical upbringing.  To have someone of that caliber just walking through our halls will cause people to gravitate to him.

“As time goes by, my hope is for him to have a more regular position on the faculty. But for now, when he’s in town and he thinks, ‘I want to play,’ he’ll think of the UW as a place to develop ideas. This is how music happens in the real world.”

Frisell will be performing Sunday, Nov. 10 at Meany Hall with his Big Sur Quintet as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival. Good seats are still available.

Photo credit: M Levin/U Photographers