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Left to right, Kenny Wollesen, Tony Scherr & Bill Frisell. Credit: Claudia Engelhart

From left, Kenny Wollesen, Tony Scherr and Bill Frisell.Claudia Engelhart

Bill Frisell has had many musical adventures in his 71 years. Now he’s going to prison.

Not for a crime against music – far from it. He’s one of the most respected and prolific American musicians of the past 40 years, a jazz guitarist who spans many genres and has trouble keeping track of his own discography with dozens of collaborators. The subtitle of a recent 450-page biography touts Frisell as “the guitarist who changed the sound of American music.” A bold claim – but many of his peers, including Paul Simon and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, are willing to back it up.

This week Frisell is in Ontario to play shows with his own trio in Ottawa and Toronto – cities where he hasn’t headlined in recent memory. He’ll also be playing inside the oldest operating federal penitentiary in the country – Collins Bay Institution, in Kingston – in front of an audience of convicts.

Why? Frisell pleads blissful ignorance. “I don’t know too much about the situation,” says the soft-spoken guitarist, who, like his music, speaks with a wide-eyed wonder. “We’ll see how it goes. I hope we can bring something positive in there.”

He doesn’t have any personal connection to prisoner rehabilitation programs or formal music therapy. But he does share a bassist, Tony Scherr, with the event’s organizer, Canadian keyboardist Hugh Christopher Brown (formerly known just as Chris Brown, known for playing with The Tragically Hip and many others). During the 2000s, Brown lived in a Brooklyn building where Frisell’s drummer, Kenny Wollesen, lived upstairs. Brown now co-owns the Hotel Wolfe Island, on the St. Lawrence River just outside Kingston, where Frisell will be playing an intimate show the night before the prison gig.

For the past decade, Brown has been working inside Kingston-area prisons, building recording studios and running songwriting workshops. His project, the Pros and Cons Program, recently gained charitable status and plans to go national. It was conceived to replace the long-running agricultural program in federal prisons, which was nixed in 2010. (Two new programs were announced in 2018, but not without controversy.) Brown was told by chaplains and program officers that had a recidivism rate of less than one per cent. Brown believes music therapy could have the same effect.

When Frisell was presented with the opportunity to participate, he immediately said yes.

“For me, music has saved my life,” says Frisell, in all earnestness. “There’s no doubt in my mind that music is such a strong, positive force. All the things that are in music: there’s tension, release, collaboration, you’re listening – listening is the main thing, and figuring out how to make harmony with each other. It sets up the whole model for how human beings can get along.”

Frisell is a leader, but he’s also a listener. He says one of his favourite gigs was at Massey Hall in Toronto for the Luminato Festival’s Joni Mitchell tribute in 2013, where drummer Brian Blade invited him to be in the backing band.

“That was astounding,” he says. “I was so grateful to have been there. I got to float through the whole thing.” Frisell was also part of a Luminato tribute to Daniel Lanois, whose work with Brian Eno was influential on Frisell’s earliest solo work. He’s fond of Canadians: He’s happier talking about Lenny Breau, Kenny Wheeler, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Ron Sexsmith than he is about himself.

An instrumental artist, Frisell tries to stay out of politics, but he’s frequently covered civil-rights staples such as A Change is Gonna Come, We Shall Overcome and Bob Dylan’s Masters of War.

“There are songs I play that are always relevant somehow, whether it’s Hard Times, the Stephen Foster song that was written 150 years ago, or What the World Needs Now. I play all that stuff because those things are on my mind. They don’t have to be so obvious, though. Just the melody has a way. Those are amazing songs, because even if you don’t know all the words, there’s a phrase here or there you’ll remember, and it adds more weight.”

Later this month Frisell will head to the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tenn., where, at one of several gigs he’ll be playing that weekend (including one with a symphony orchestra), he’ll be paying tribute to prolific polymath John Zorn, his friend and longest-standing employer.

Zorn and Frisell have worked together in various contexts – including guitar trios, chamber music and noisy skronk. “I need to get a secretary just to keep track of my stuff with Zorn alone,” says Frisell, who has released 40 albums under his own name.

Zorn is known for being mercurial, a polar opposite personality from the congenial Frisell. In the aforementioned Frisell biography, Beautiful Dreamer, the late producer Hal Willner is quoted as saying, “Bill Frisell is the one person John Zorn has never flipped out on – and John Zorn flips out on everybody.”

When asked about that quote, Frisell laughs for a long time, and then says, “I don’t know. I try to be a nice guy.”

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