Bill Frisell

ShenandoahGood Dog, Happy Man
Surfer GirlGuitar In The Space Age!
Messin' With The KidGuitar In The Space Age!
I Heard It Through The GrapevineEast/West
Masters Of WarFurther East/Further West
Lost HighwayFurther East/Further West
Beautiful BoyAll We Are Saying
MotherAll We Are Saying
A Change Is Gonna ComeHistory, Mystery
Wildwood Flower/
Save The Last Dance For Me


Bill Frisell photo 1

Bill Frisell (photo: Paul Moore)



Bill Frisell playlist


Contributor: David Lewis

Jazz guitarists are meant to play hollow body guitars, with no effects, or maybe just a bit of compression. They are supposed to play standards by established jazz composers. Folk and rock writers, with few exceptions, are considered too easy, too popular, too simple.

From 1969, with the release of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, some jazz players have been happy to bring in rock techniques and approaches. Players like, but not only, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Eric Johnson, Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth extended the guitar’s vocabulary and technical limitations.

Bill Frisell is not a technical player. Unlike, say, Holdsworth or Metheny or Di Meola, where dizzying flurries of notes fly off the fretboard at the speed of sound. Bill is relatively slow. He builds soundscapes much like an artist might start with an empty canvas and then slowly filling it with tone and image. He claims he’s not a fast player (and he certainly hasn’t gone out of his way to demonstrate otherwise), but his touch and tone and expression are superb.

Bill Frisell photo 3

He was born in Baltimore in 1951 but was brought up in Denver. In the 80s he lived in New Jersey with his wife, where he was in distance of the New York jazz scene but the rent was cheaper. A big break came in 1981 when Pat Metheny was unavailable for a gig and recommended Frisell to drummer Paul Motian. From there, he played in various collaborations and on tours and on movie soundtracks. He also joined bands. For a long time, he was a struggling musician, but like Allan Holdsworth or Danny Gatton (for example), kept furrowing on his personal vision of music.

Bill Frisell is a lover of popular music. He brings an aesthetic to jazz which is not elitist. He’s done an album of covers of film and television songs – considered among certain jazz purists as the lowest of the low – commercial hackery run wild. He has covered Dylan, Lennon, Brian Wilson and Hank Williams. He loves country music. There are those elitist jazz musicians, (not all of them, of course) who believe country music is universally awful. Bill just plays it.

If I don’t say much about the songs, it’s because they are best experienced without a lot of commentary. I’ve also picked all covers, which may seem that I don’t rate Bill’s many compositions – this is not the case. They are wonderful. But as I constructed the list, I reasoned that the best way to show his work is to show it in the context of familiar tunes. Go and listen to the rest of his recorded output. Then watch his live performances (Bill Frisell YouTube channel) whether solo or with a small band, he pushes the limits of these songs even further and shows the improvisational basis of all his work.

Shenandoah is one of the most haunting and affecting tunes of the American folk tradition. So ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget just how lovely it really is. Bill Frisell doesn’t forget though, and on his 1999 album, Good Dog, Happy Man, builds up layers and layers to bring almost a new composition to this old chestnut.

Brian Wilson’s beautiful Surfer Girl from Guitar In The Space Age! has a personal resonance for Bill – it was the first single he bought. And, of course, Brian Wilson at his best is almost unparalleled as a songwriter. And Surfer Girl is one of his most beautiful songs. And Bill treats it with the reverence it deserves.

For a bit of fun from the same album, Messin’ With The Kid shows Bill playing this great blues track. Junior Wells did the original, but Rory Gallagher and the Blues Brothers, among others, have done outstanding versions. Bill slows it, a little, adds that atmosphere he always does, and puts his own stamp on it. One of my demented theories is that you have to know how to play blues if you want to play 20th and 21st century vernacular music. Bill easily passes this test.

When Gladys Knight sang I Heard It Through The Grapevine, she was angry. Marvin Gaye was upset – heartbroken, depressed, and yes, a bit angry. Bill Frisell’s instrumental on East/West (2004) is paranoid, claustrophobic and brilliant. He gets more and more unhinged – those backward notes. Hendrix peeps his head over the parapet in this. Again, another song where new interpretations and depths are found by Frisell.

Dylan’s bitter masterpiece Masters Of War finds a new dimension on Further East/Further West in the following year. Although these are amongst the most scathing lyrics Dylan ever wrote – e.g. “And I hope that you die/ and your death will come soon/ I’ll follow your casket/ on a pale afternoon/ And I’ll watch while you’re lowered/ down to your deathbed/ I’ll stand over your grave/ till I’m sure that you’re dead.” Bill proves you don’t actually need the lyrics to get the message across.

I’m already on record as an admirer of Hank Williams, and although he didn’t write this, no-one sang Lost Highway better than him. This track is also from Further East/Further West and Bill again draws out the musical validity of it, quoting country licks, playing the melody, and improvising around it.

Bill’s album of Lennon covers, All We Are Saying, is outstanding. I could have just listed the songs on this album. As a result, elimination was difficult, but Imagine has also been done by others, notably Tommy Emmanuel. Come Together was another near miss from All We Are Saying, as was Please, Please Me. Beautiful Boy is so gorgeous, and despite containing some of Lennon’s best lyrics, Bill again shows you don’t need them to express the emotion.

Speaking of which, Mother shines. In the chorus, Bill gently pushes the guitar so it’s expressing the angst. It gives me goosebumps. Lennon is often lauded for his lyrics, but people tend to forget just how good he was at music. Bill Frisell, as always, brings out the music behind the song.

The History, Mystery album from 2008 contains some great Frisell compositions, However, I’ve gone for another cover – A Change Is Gonna Come. There’s not much I can say I haven’t already said about how he brings previously unseen facets to songs, but it’s in here too. As for another track from this album, just listen to all of it.

Wildwood Flower/Save The Last Dance For Me from his 2019 album, Epistrophy, with bassist Thomas Morgan, shows definitively that Bill Frisell has not run out of ideas, nor has he fallen into a same-y rut. The Carters and the Drifters may not seem like a pair of acts who’d fit together in a medley, but Bill Frisell, sorcerer of the impossible, does it.

If you’re bored with the same old licks and same old approach of jazz players, Bill Frisell may be a nice palate cleanser. He’s a direct descendant of Wes Montgomery, but has expanded the repertoire and technique of guitar. His use of electronic effects is creative to the point where he uses them, not as effects, but as instruments. His guitar playing is impeccable. And his taste is superb. I said, above, to listen to all of his music. I say it again.




Bill Frisell photo 2


Bill Frisell introduces the music and the players on his new 2019 Bluenote album “Harmony”


Bill Frisell offical website

Bill Frisell at Nonesuch Records

Bill Frisell: A Portrait: a film by Emma Franz

Bill Frisell on The Making of Guitar in the Space Age (YouTube)

Bill Frisell: The Songs of John Lennon (Tiny Desk Concert 2012)

Bill Frisell: The ‘favourite guitarist of many people who agree on little else’ (Irish Times 2019)

Everybody Digs Bill Frisell … forthcoming biography by Philip Watson

Bill Frisell biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Beach Boys, Carter Family, Sam Cooke, Drifters, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Allan Holdsworth, John Lennon, Hank Williams

TopperPost #805


  1. David Tanner
    Aug 1, 2019

    Great post. East/West is fabulous and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” stunning in its sonic palette.

  2. augustus
    Aug 1, 2019

    Nice article, but would have liked to know more about Bill Frisell and his career, as opposed to a breakdown of tunes he’s covered.
    It’s understandable that covers are used as a way to approach Bill Frisell’s music, yet there are those that might be drawn in by things that are more challenging and/or indiosyncratic. The piece of music of his that made me a life long fan was “Hard Plains Drifter” as well as that entire recording. The opening notes of “Before We Were Born” reaches out and grabs the listener by the throat.
    While I do own many of his recordings from the 90’s and on, if that had been my introduction to his music, I wouldn’t have become hooked on his music the way I have. I expect there are others who probably would be the same way.
    Use of live material was a good choice, as he always shines in live performance.

    • Merric Davidson
      Aug 1, 2019

      Thanks for your comment augustus. Regarding the bit about hoping to read more about Bill and his career, as editor of this site I thought I should interject. Our ‘guidelines’ (a grand term but little more than a mini mission statement in reality) state: “the perfect Topperpost is a little less about the history of an artist and a little more about what makes your selection the very best tracks and what they mean to you.” That is open to interpretation and some contributors haven’t bothered about it in the least, and that’s fine too. Makes things less rigid. Anyway, I reckon DL was sticking to the ‘rules’ by concentrating on his 10 picks. If you fancy having a crack at an artist/band we haven’t covered yet we’d love to hear from you. PS: I’m writing this while the young man next door is trying to perfect Johnny B. Goode on his guitar. He’s doing ok but I hope he stops soon!

  3. Andrew Shields
    Aug 1, 2019

    David, thanks for this great introduction to a brilliant musician. Such superb sublety in his playing – ‘the art that conceals art’, indeed. Thanks again.

  4. Philip Watson
    Aug 2, 2019

    A good piece and selection, though there are quite a number of factual errors. For example: Frisell was born in Baltimore, Maryland, not Michigan; he lived in New Jersey from 1979-89; Pat Metheny recommended Frisell to drummer Paul Motian in 1981, but that was hardly “his first break”; he’s never been a “session musician”, especially not “on advertisements”. For more on Frisell and his music, perhaps best to see the detailed bio on his website and, may I suggest, the recently launched website for my forthcoming biography of Frisell (
    (Thanks Philip, will amend accordingly and good luck with the book… Ed.)

  5. Keith Shackleton
    Aug 2, 2019

    Rules are fine, writer’s picks are fine, what’s a Toppermost to someone is fine.
    But not knowing too much about Bill, I want to hear more Bill.

  6. David Lewis
    Aug 2, 2019

    Thanks for the comments. I do appreciate them. Apologies for the errors.
    I’m trying to find where I got he worked in advertising. But that came from a (probably erroneous) source.
    Michigan was completely on me. I thought ‘Maryland’ but wrote Michigan. Then didn’t pick it up. It had been pointed out to me, so there’s a half completed email to correct it. Doesn’t matter, it’s corrected.
    Bill has had a complex career. I drifted away from continuing the biography for space and time reasons. I thought it interesting that he was part of the NY jazz scene, but commuted. To me, this said something about his approach to music. He is now based in Seattle, and has been for a long time.
    My approach to the vast majority of these is, as Sherlock Holmes said to Dr Watson, quoting Georges Sand: ‘l’oeuvre tout, l’homme rien’. Roughly, the work is everything, the person, nothing. Not that any of my 30 odd choices have been nothings, but for my toppers I’m far more interested in the music. And I don’t know that my articles are the place for personal details, rarely do I put the full biography past the establishing years. Those who are interested can chase the details up. If there is a book or two, I’ll mention them. I’m looking forward to Philip Watson’s biography of Bill and we link to his Irish Times article and his website at the foot of the post.
    But my point is to try to get people to the work. There’s a whole lot of people who should hear, but haven’t heard, Bill Frisell. As a guitarist myself, I love his approach, and he always challenges me to be a better player.

  7. Philip Watson
    Aug 2, 2019

    Many thanks David and the Ed for your comments, corrections and encouragements; also much appreciated. Thanks too for linking to my Irish Times piece and website.
    Much has been written about Frisell over the years and his career, as you suggest, David, is varied and complex – that’s no doubt one reason why errors in various sources have crept in.
    You’re right though about New Jersey as an illustration of Frisell as musical “outlier”. As guitarist Marc Ribot once wrote about Frisell’s key connection to the more avant and adventurous players in New York in the ’80s (John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Tim Berne and Julius Hemphill, for example): “Why, although Frisell was aware of and a central downtown music participant, was he also allowed the guilty pleasure of melody without guilt?” (The same creative distancing was part of the reason, as you suggest, Frisell moved to Seattle, where he lived for almost 30 years; he moved back to New York, to Brooklyn, in 2017.)
    And finally, you’re right again, David: if any of this brings a reader to the work, to Frisell’s beautifully open, thrillingly diverse and highly individual music, then your work here is done!

  8. Dave Stephens
    Aug 5, 2019

    A superb Topper and some mighty good music.

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