Bill Frisell: Ramping It Up
858 Quarteta new spin on the classical string quartet, where one of the violins is replaced with Frisell's guitar, alongside Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Robertshas been around for some time, but it's only released one album to date, and while Richter 858 was made available to a larger audience by Canada's Songlines label in 2005, it was actually first issued as part of a limited-run book of artwork by German painter Gerhard Richter, in 2002. So it's been nearly a decade since the quartet last recorded together, despite touring on a semi-regular basis, including a sublime performance at the 2010 Ottawa International Jazz Festival, that came a night after he played with Beautiful DreamersKang and drummer Rudy Roystonat the same festival.
Beautiful Dreamers largely focused on material from its then-upcoming, self-titled debut (its first for Savoy Jazz), but 858 wasn't playing any of the music that would come to be recorded four months later, at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, for one simple reason: Frisell had yet to write material for the new 858 album. The guitarist wouldn't do so, in fact, until just a month before the studio session, when he spent four weeks at an artists' enclave in Vermont, called the Vermont Studio Center. "I've never done anything like that before," Frisell explains. "I was in Vermont for a month, at this Vermont Studio Center. It's in a little town called Johnson, Vermont, and it's about an hour from Burlington, so it's way up there. It's an amazing, beautiful place: mainly painters and sculptors and writers; they've never had musicians before, and they don't even really have facilities for musicians. I was in a painting studio, this empty white room with a desk, and it was incredible just to have that kind of space and time.
"I can't even remember when I've had that much timemaybe when I was just out of college and didn't have any work, and I'd just sit around and practicemaybe it was a little bit like that," Frisell continues. "But I had blocked off that timemy wife is a painter, and that's how I found out about the placeyou apply to go there, and there's about 50 artists there at one time. We both went there at the same time, and we each had a studio. I knew I was going to record at the end of that period of time, and I already had older music that I knew we [858 Quartet] could record. We hadn't recorded in a long time, and there was a lot of material already, so I didn't have that pressure where I felt, 'Oh god, I've got to come up with the stuff.' So I just wrote for the sake of doing it. There really wasn't any pressureI was just free to write and write and write. So I'd go in every day, and whatever came into my mind, I wrote it down. I accumulated all these pieces of paper; it was just a completely different kind of experience. Then they  came at the end of the periodthe last couple days I was thereand we just read through some of it, we did a little informal concert for the people up there, and then we went and recorded it."
While Sign of Life feels as though it was composed as a near-continuous suite, with certain themes cropping up more than once throughout its 54-minute, 17-song set, that's not how it came about. "I don't even know how many pieces I actually wrote," says Frisell. "I guess that happens later [putting the music together into sequence]. It's always kinda like a puzzle. When I'm actually writing, it's hard for me to see the bigger pictureit almost gets in my way if I think that way. I have to just let whatever comes out come out, and then accumulate all this stuff. It's more in the editing that some sort of a larger form starts to appear, and then I might take somethinglike, if there's this one melody, I'll do it in a bunch of different ways. That happened a lot on the Disfarmer (Nonesuch, 2009) album; there's a lot of things coming from this one little melody that runs throughout the whole album."
One of Frisell's most intriguing qualities is his abilityunlike some artists who prefer not to look back and revisit older materialto continue mining the same material in a variety of contexts. He can take a relatively simple melody, like that of "Baba Drame," from the pan-cultural The Intercontinentals (2003) and, through patient repetition and subtle variance, evolve it almost imperceptibly, to new places, nevertheless. "That's what I'm hoping for every time I play," Frisell explains. "I don't want it to be the same; it's just in the nature of the way I play and the folks that I play with."