In the thoughtful 2017 documentary “Bill Frisell, A Portrait,” iconoclastic composer John Zorn recalls that whenever guitarist Frisell joined him on New York’s experimental “downtown” scene in the 1980s, “It was always better, no matter what music it was, no matter who was performing, Bill’s presence would lift everything up to his level. It was as if John Coltrane had come in and said, ‘You guys are doing something interesting. I want to be involved.’ ”
High praise, but former Seattle resident Frisell, who plays Jazz Alley June 27-30, has earned it. His obliquely inflected, alternately pinging and pining guitar sound and genre-blind approach to everything from country to classical has been a mighty influence. A Grammy winner for his 2005 album, “Unspeakable,” and a consistent “guitarist of the year” in Down Beat magazine’s annual poll, Frisell recently released a dazzling solo effort, “Music Is,” that prompted Down Beat to say Frisell’s “genius runs deep.”
Frisell, terminally modest, finds all such kudos slightly embarrassing. In a telephone interview a couple of weeks ago from Brisbane, Australia, where he was on tour, he quickly deflected attention away from himself and toward the documentary’s director, Emma Franz, who also happens to be from Australia.
“It wouldn’t even have had to have been about me,” he said. “She was trying to show what a musician or artist does — more the process. I really appreciate that.”
Predictably, Frisell also credits the sidemen in the trio he is bringing here — Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) — for the group’s singularity. It is his most “jazzy” group, to be sure, given to muscular swing and strong melodies as well as the shimmering, atmospheric moods for which he is well-known.
“They’re always a few steps ahead of me,” he said. “That’s my secret, if anybody wants to know. A band is only as good as its weakest link, and I’m the weakest link.”
As with so many aspects of Frisell’s career since he moved here from New York in 1989, Seattle played a decisive role in the trio’s formation. Seattle composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz recommended Wollesen, and Frisell first heard Scherr at Seattle’s late and lamented alternative-music venue the OK Hotel. Seattle is also where Frisell met one of his regular sidemen, viola player Eyvind Kang, and where he became fast friends with cartoonists Gary Larson and Jim Woodring, both of whom he has collaborated with.
Two years ago, however, the guitarist decided it was time to return to the Big Apple, for reasons that will strike a chord with many readers.
“I don’t want to get all dark on Seattle,” said the mild-mannered musician, “but it just seemed like things had changed so much. I woke up one day and said, ‘Why am I just sitting here in my car on I-5 and I’m trying to go to the grocery store? What am I doing here?’ Seattle, the whole time we lived there, was a kind of an oasis for me, a refuge from the travel.”
Indeed, Frisell spends most of his life on the road, so perhaps we’ll be seeing him as often now as we did when he lived here. But don’t miss the chance to hear this trio. It’s a special opportunity, and not just because of Wollesen and Scherr.
Bill Frisell Trio, with Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, June 27-30, also 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 28-29; Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave., Seattle; $32.50; 206-441-9729, jazzalley.com