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Intersections: 'Bumpin' into a Guitar Legend

In 1967, a Colorado high school band director asked one of his students to learn a song for the school talent show. The student listened to a recording of the music, picked out the tune on his guitar, and immediately became hooked. The song: "Bumpin' on Sunset," by legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. The student: A young Bill Frisell.

Today, Frisell is renowned as a versatile musician and bandleader with a vast repertoire of blues, country, and rock -- but he says he's a jazz guitarist at heart. For Intersections, a series on artists and their inspirations, Frisell talks with reporter Marcie Sillman.

"Bumpin' on Sunset" introduced Frisell to the world of jazz. The song was, in some ways, simpler than the music he listened to in high school, but it was also deeper. He noticed that Montgomery often played the same note simultaneously in three octaves, creating a unique harmony. Those octaves, a signature Montgomery technique, draw the listener's focus to the melody, which Frisell came to see as the "backbone of music."

Now a master melodist himself, Frisell says Montgomery's music drove him "to find out what jazz was." In the summer of 1968, while Frisell was devouring as much Montgomery as he could find, the Newport Jazz Festival launched a tour that included the guitar virtuoso. Frisell bought a ticket, but before the tour came to Colorado, Montgomery died of a heart attack. Although Frisell didn't get to see his hero, hearing Cannonball Adderley, Thelonius Monk and Gary Burton at the show increased his infatuation with jazz.

"I'd go off on my own and mess with the guitar. I didn't read -- it was just for fun and I could do what I wanted," Frisell says. "There were no rules." And Wes Montgomery, a musician with no formal musical training, was a perfect role model. In the course of his self-taught career, he established himself as one of the most influential jazz guitarists of his generation. As Frisell says, "He didn't read music. It was like this homemade thing he did all himself."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.