Bill Frisell

Cinema Scope:
Bill Frisell Rediscovers The Soundtracks of His Life

People who love Bill Frisell love Bill Frisell because of his generosity in dispensing what I’d call the Frisellian Moment. You kind of have to be there, since it isn’t a quality that is necessarily grasped as easily from only listening to a Frisell recording, although the more accustomed you are to the guitarist’s singular musical personality the more likely you are to pick up on its peculiarities in the nuance of a particular note or, more likely, the resonant space between the notes.

One of my favorite Frisellian Moments happened last winter, when he brought his trio – drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr – to Tallahassee, Fla., playing to a full house at Ruby Diamond Auditorium on the campus of my old college stomping grounds, Florida State University. There was no specific theme to the show, which laid out a gorgeous, mercurial flow of melodies refracted into improvisatory shimmers and glances. Enjoyable for those who didn’t know the tunes, but a rich pleasure for those who did, as the trio’s eccentric and joyful transmutations were the essence of “the jazz spirit,” or what have you, yet also a display of Frisell’s particular style of virtuosity – a style buzzing with tease, hesitation, surprise and more than a bit of daredevilry half-masked as aw-shucks humbleshrug, although always as sincere as apple pie.

So there was Bill, amid a set of standards, originals and pop themes, hitting a heavy, thudding chord that sounded like a mistake – or a snatch of Doom Metal. He did it again, unable to control a grin that worked across his face as he looked across the stage at his sidemen, who joined in what was, for a second or two, a real moment of suspense. And then, of course, “Bah-dunt-DAHHHHH!” Off they go into title theme of Goldfinger, the James Bond movie, composed by John Barry and sung by the indelibly brassy Shirley Bassey, only, here, arguably rendered under the influence of The Melvins and Thelonious Monk. That space between the guitarist’s evident self-amusement and the audience’s shock of recognition of the song, the instant of “huh?” – that is the Frisellian Moment. Or, at least, one example of it.

Talking to Frisell not too long ago, I discovered that he’d only tackled “Goldfinger” for the first time that afternoon as the trio rehearsed. That helped to explain some of the giddy provisionalism of their rendition, but then you could also say that giddy provisionalism is part of what makes Frisell so great. Even the most familiar earwig can become an exotic butterfly through the magic of improvisation. And no one, not even those playing the music, can quite know which direction it’s about to flutter off in. But he wasn’t just shaking-not-stirring for kicks. Frisell’s most recent album is completely devoted to classic movie soundtrack music. When You Wish Upon a Star (OKeh/Sony Legacy) recasts the yeoman’s work of such composers as Elmer Bernstein (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), Barry (“You Only Live Twice”), Bernard Hermann (“Psycho”), Ennio Morricone (“Once Upon a Time in the West”), Nino Rota (“The Godfather”) and Henry Mancini (“Moon River”).

Petra Haden, who made a 2003 duet album with Frisell, was part of the quintet that made the record. She was much at home with the concept. Three years ago, she released her own a cappella tribute, Petra Goes to the Movies. It included a fairly straightforward version of the Psycho theme, albeit sung in choral “doot-doot-doots.”

The version she performs with Frisell on the new album, in a wordless, swooping soprano, is jaunty and minimalist, a playful stab at the anxious tone of Herrmann’s original score for the Alfred Hitchcock shocker. “I just love how Bill puts a whole new twist to it,” says Haden, whose late father, legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, also worked with Frisell. “He makes it fun. There’s a humor thing.”

“Moon River,” composed by Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, is kept simple. Haden, who previously recorded the song with Frisell, sings to achingly subtle accompaniment, much as Hepburn’s Holly Golightly does in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The guitarist’s airy improvisations expose the melody’s vulnerable soul.

When called for, the interpretations become strident. “As a Judgement,” from Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, boasts a thrilling face-off between Eyvind Kang’s viola and Frisell’s guitar that matches the dust and fever evoked by the source, composed for Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti Western.

“There’s this great glimmer of recognition and familiarity to it when you first hear it, yet just the way he interprets it and states it, the way the band orchestrates it, it all feels so new,” says Lee Townsend, Frisell’s longtime producer, speaking about the album as a whole. “It’s the mysterious and the familiar at the same time, that’s another hallmark of Bill’s work. The easy way out is to approach it with some kind of postmodernist irony, but he has a guileless way of presenting it.”

In the course of an hour’s conversation, Frisell talked about everything from his attitude about the studio – “The recoding is a blueprint to get you started” – to drinking beer with now-octogenarian members of the old Wrecking Crew, the Los Angeles studio musicians who first recorded many of the movie and TV soundtracks beloved of the guitarist. We narrowed the chat down to five questions below.

This project came about as an offshoot of a Jazz at Lincoln Center residency, but your steady listeners won’t be surprised to hear you’ve made a movie-music album. What’s the pull?

“Some of them I’ve been playing for years and years. Just the music itself, there’s no escaping it. I’m almost 65 years old, being born in 1951, and growing up with television and movies, the music that I chose for this is so much a part of the fabric of what my musical imagination is … much more than the movies or the music. There are so many associations with things going on in the world in different times of my life. There’s a bit of autobiographical stuff going on here.”

How so? Any pieces you relate strongly to?

“’The Bad and the Beautiful.’ That was a song that had been in my imagination for a long time but I never actually played it. I’m attracted to the music, I’ve been entering into it and learning more about the composers themselves. There’s just a huge amount to draw from. You have the film itself, which gives you something to think about. But I have all these other associations. Thinking about what was happening around the time I first saw that movie, or when I first got my driver’s license and on the very, very rare occasion that I actually had a date with a girl and I got to drive my parents’ car to downtown Denver to go see a James Bond movie. There’s stuff like that that’s resonating with the music, it gives you a lot to hold onto than just the notes. When we start to play these pieces, you’re starting off with a lot more than the notes themselves.

Did it get obsessive?

“The one I probably obsessed over the most was ‘The Bad and the Beautiful.’ Every time I would hear it, I couldn’t shake it off. It is absolutely, exquisitely beautiful but when you actually get down to what’s going on with the notes and the chords, it’s very unusual. When I started to figure out what was going on I really went nuts for a long time. When I finally got what I thought it was, I found a songbook that had [composer] David Raksin’s piano version of it.”

How would you describe your approach to all this great material, which is already so embedded in Hollywood’s fantasy life?

“I’m not trying to change it, I’m trying to understand what was originally there and then the whole band understands that. It’s not re-writing the song or re-harmonizing it or even arranging it. The transformation that happens where we each know it well enough, we all are singing it together using our voices, it becomes our own. That’s my hope. I experience it happening and it’s the most amazing feeling when that happens, everybody in the band finds their own meaning in it. You hear what was always there all along but maybe in a new way. With ‘You Only Live Twice,’ there was one chord, I heard it hundreds of times, and one day I head this one note. I suddenly heard something that wasn’t there after all this time and I can add it in when I play.”

What discovery impressed you the most in the midst of the project?

“The musical skill level that somebody like Bernard Hermann or David Raksin or Elmer Bernstein or Henry Mancini had. The idea that these guys wrote the music down and people were playing the music live in a room while they’re watching the film, the level of sheer musical mastery that was going on during that time is just astounding to me. I could hear human beings playing instruments in a room and I can hear how on edge these guys are reading this stuff down for the first or the second time. Some guy wrote this stuff out, orchestrated it and got these people in the room. ‘OK, we’ve got an hour.’ Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. We hear that and it becomes this monolithic thing, a touchstone, something that the whole world hears their whole life. And you think: These guys just went in there and did that in a few minutes and then they went on and did something else. The guys that did it, maybe they didn’t even remember doing it.”

Photo by Monica Frisell.