Reverb Soundcheck: Bill Frisell

When it comes to guitarist Bill Frisell, the word that comes up time and again is “amazing.” His fans use it often, most recently with the boundary-breaking jazz guitarist’s latest album, When You Wish Upon A Star, which was released in late January. This collection of TV and movie music has inspired glowing reviews.

“Frisell is meticulous throughout, never playing more than necessary,” said London’s Independent. And, in an interview pegged to the new record, NPR Music dubbed Frisell “one of the world’s most inventive guitarists and composers.”

Yet when Frisell repeats “amazing” in his conversation with Reverb, it’s in the most humble sense imaginable. The 2005 GRAMMY winner — he also was nominated for this year’s Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for Guitar in the Space Age! — had this to say about the record-making process, “It’s amazing I’m able to make recordings these days, given the way things are in music. When it came to making a record or recording, not all that long ago I had this idea that that’s what the big guys do.”

While Frisell may be one of those big guys now, what matters to him is fearless, peerless exploration of the inner spaces within a composition. The process for making the new record involved repeated practices, studying the score and listening to as many versions of the selected songs as possible. But once that was done, Frisell’s four accomplices, violist Eyvind Kang, drummer Rudy Royston, bassist Thomas Morgan and vocalist Petra Haden, roamed each musical landscape with the mission of bringing sublime touches of style to it.

“You still have to have the music and the information we’re going to deal with, but for me it’s so much about who I’m with, and the trust we have with each other,” says Frisell, who has just started performing the album tracks live. “We’ve done two shows so far and how the material transformed between the first gig and the second, it was incredible.” Ultimately, the evolution of a song with each performance is a matter of artistic mystery, though Frisell offers glimpses into how the music changes during its creation in the studio.

“There’s this incredible thing that happens,” he says of fleshing out material in the studio. “I’m realizing that my process, especially with this music — or my own music that I write — comes down to the idea that I don’t know it as well as I think I do. So I keep trying to turn it over and over, inside out and backwards and see what’s in there.”

And that, he points out, isn’t the least bit easy. “It’s amazing what can happen with this music — it’s not static at all. Whatever we did with the record, I’m happy about that, but it was just one moment. And now it can go all kinds of ways.”

Bill Frisell's pedal setup

Bill Frisell's pedal setup

Music for Films

So what inspired an album of film and TV music anyway? For Frisell, it was in large part an odyssey to his past: seeing, for perhaps the first time, how much the music gave poignancy and power to what he viewed as a child and young adult. “It’s coming from an earlier time in my life when my imagination was really being formed.”

Frisell cites his two-part suite of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a film that brings back strong memories of the Civil Rights Movement for him. “It conjures up this atmosphere of what was happening in my life. So when I play this, it comes from a special place.”

But sometimes, the music sparks more of a coming-of-age ritual every ’60s kid knows. The 1967 James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” came out while Frisell was a teen, going on dates in the family car: a 1962, metallic light-blue Chevrolet Biscayne. “The cheapest kind of car they could get,” Frisell says.

The memory makes him laugh, but his interpretation of “Twice” sets the listener afloat in a mist culled straight from some decades-old reverie. Frisell’s chord washes and sleepy, slow-burning lead runs weave gently around the main theme — played by Kang — and Haden’s delicious, crisp vocal.

Frisell and company prove equally nimble whether stretching out on a nine minute-plus version of “The Godfather,” which comes into focus with Arabesque touches, or playing it straight and sly, as on the lighthearted “Happy Trails,” complete with the requisite western clip-clopping.

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For those who latch onto “Star,” Frisell has good news: “This is an ongoing concept and there could be newer films we tap.” But if you press Frisell in terms of how his style might change between now and then — or how it’s evolved over the years — well, that might just be the stuff of some cinematic dream sequence.

“It’s just one giant thing, really,” he says, laughing. “I’ve been so lucky with just getting opportunity after opportunity after opportunity for what seems like forever. But even one note will suggest the next note, and one song the next song. You just have to be in it and the music itself will take you to these amazing places.”


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