Making of "Big Sur"


Release Date: June 18, 2013

"After decades of trodding such a brave and singular path, maybe Frisell deserves his own genre. How about 'friz'?" - JazzTimes

"Long one of my favorite artists, Bill never ceases to amaze me. His reach seems limitless and his grasp so deep. Big Sur is shimmery, evocative musical haiku as only Bill can do. Simply no one like him." - Bonnie Raitt

With the release of Big Sur - his debut on Sony Classical's recently revived OKeh label, and first album with his Big Sur Quintet - guitarist-composer Bill Frisell makes a major contribution to the catalog of works inspired by a unique stretch of Western landscape.

The region known as Big Sur occupies 90 miles of spectacular central California coastline, midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, and extends inland to the abruptly rising Santa Lucia Mountains. Over the past century, poems and novels by Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Richard Brautigan, photographs by Edward Wesson and Ansel Adams, and musical pieces by Charles Lloyd, Lou Harrison, John Adams, the Beach Boys, Fleet Foxes, Death Cab For Cutie, and others have all embodied the spirit of Big Sur's rugged coastline and terrain, breathtaking vistas, and potential for communion with nature.

Bill Frisell's Big Sur is an hour of original music, 19 compositions that explicitly reference the coastal-mountain environment - in such titles as "A Good Spot," "Going to California," "A Beautiful View," "Big Sur," and "On the Lookout" - and evoke the remote and pastoral setting with musical blends of chamber jazz, country, classical, folk, and rock.

The project was born of a Monterey Jazz Festival commission in 2012 that included a residency at Glen Deven Ranch, an 860-acre property bequeathed to the Big Sur Land Trust by Dr. Seeley Mudd and his wife, Virginia, in 2001. Frisell - joined by violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts, and drummer Rudy Royston - premiered the music at the festival in September 2012. Six months later, the quintet recorded Big Sur at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, with longtime Frisell collaborators Lee Townsend and Adam Muñoz producing and engineering, respectively.

For Frisell - who was born in Baltimore in 1951, grew up in Denver, and was a crucial player in New York City's fervent "Downtown" scene before moving to Seattle, where he lives today - Glen Deven's beauty and quietude provided both inspiration and something even more rare: time to be alone with his muse.

"I had been through Big Sur before," Frisell recalls, "but only driving along the coast on Highway 1. I'd never turned up into those canyons. Lana Weeks, from the Big Sur Land Trust, and Tim Jackson, director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, took me up to the Ranch late at night up this long, narrow, winding road. It was pitch black out when they showed me around the main house and the little guesthouse, and I was tired and a little nervous. I woke up in the morning and looked out and thought, oh, my god, where am I?"

Tim Jackson had wanted the commission to go to someone who would appreciate the setting, Frisell explains, adding, "I really hit the jackpot! It was extraordinary. You're surrounded by forest, and there's a trail that you can walk to the end of the bluff, where the land just drops off and you see the whole panorama of the Big Sur coast and the Pacific Ocean. That's what I woke up to every morning. It was incredible."

But it may have been the break from his busy schedule that made the biggest difference for Frisell. Since launching his recording career as leader in 1983 on the ECM label, the guitarist has spent much of the past 30 years in studios and on tour. His stunning résumé includes solo work, such as the recent Silent Comedy (Tzadik); duos with Greg Leisz, Vinicius Cantuária, Jim Hall, and Petra Haden; various trios (Ron Carter and Paul Motian; Dave Holland and Elvin Jones; Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen; and Beautiful Dreamers with Eyvind Kang and Rudy Royston) and quartets; and such genre-blurring projects as the Intercontinentals, The Willies, Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings, Floratone (with drummer Matt Chamberlain and producers Townsend and Tucker Martine), The Sweetest Punch: The New Songs of Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach, All We Are Saying (a tribute to the music of John Lennon), and Richter 858 (with Kang, Scheinman, and Roberts). A recipient of the inaugural Doris Duke Artist Award in 2012, his distinctive guitar tones, colors, and harmonic sensibilities make Frisell one of the most sought-after collaborators in contemporary music. Additionally, Frisell lends his artistic vision to two major arts institutions in 2013: as a Resident Artistic Director for SFJAZZ and curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center's new "Roots of Americana" series (the latter during the 2013-2014 season).

Despite this consistently jam-packed schedule, Frisell was cut off from the outside world during his two stays at Glen Deven, once in April 2012, and again several months later. "The first time was for ten days," Frisell says, "and I was completely alone. And I'm not used to that. I had no schedule, no deadlines, and there wasn't any pressure. The idea was to just write music.

"For me, it was all about having that kind of space - not even the physical space, which was just beyond belief - but the mental space. I've been so lucky playing and working so much, but it's become rare in the past 20 years to actually have time to reflect on things and to let them percolate or simmer. In Big Sur, I never knew what time it was, my phone didn't work, I slept whenever I wanted, and I woke up whenever I wanted."

When he wasn't writing in his cabin, Frisell found himself meandering out the trail toward the lookout, settling onto one of the benches with his pad of music paper, and writing down whatever melodies popped into his head. "I filled up pages and pages," he says. "The music just kept coming."

Shortly before the Monterey Jazz Festival, Frisell returned to Glen Deven, joined by his band mates. "When Jenny and Eyvind and Hank and Rudy came to rehearse, they got a feel for where I'd been when I was writing. That's really when we became the Big Sur Quintet - and when the music came to life."

Essentially combining the 858 Quartet with Beautiful Dreams (given Royston's participation), the new Quintet imparts exciting breadth and grandeur to Frisell's compositions. "I think of 858 as having a very wide dynamic range, from intimate and quiet to big and orchestral," Frisell says. "But the drums bring out the power even more. Rudy does unexpected things that inspire me, which is what everybody in this band is doing all the time."

You can hear Frisell propelled by his collaborators throughout Big Sur, notably the way his guitar grows increasingly edgy against the group's orchestral sweep and rhythmic punch on "Gather Good Things," or how it lifts and soars out of swirling ensemble updrafts on "Hawks." This is a band that can conjure a striking variety of moods and images, from nocturnal mystery ("Animals") and idyllic reverie ("We All Love Neil Young") to snaking curves of asphalt ("Highway 1") and crashing waves (the surf-rock-tinged "The Big One").

"I always feel guilty when I say I write the music," Frisell notes. "I do write these melodies on paper - and I know that's important - but there's this huge step that comes from the other musicians. For much of this album, they are playing the actual notes that I wrote down, but the way they bring their own sound to it, there's no way it can just be on the paper."

"This Quintet feels like family," says Frisell, who titled one new piece "Sing Together Like Family." It's evident in the way the musicians interact intuitively to shape the music while playing. "You hear that sort of thing when the Carter family sings together," he explains. "For them, it's in the blood. With us, it comes from putting in all those hours on trains and planes, and going through all this together. When it turns into music, it's about how we're connected. Whether the notes are written or improvised, all kinds of decisions are being made on the spur of the moment, which I just love. It keeps the music fresh. Hopefully, every time we play Big Sur, something new will happen."

"Bill Frisell - Big Sur Super 8" a film by Monica Jane Frisell

(For complete biography on Bill Frisell, please visil