September 05, 2011

An Interview with Bill Frisell

Once guitarist and composer Bill Frisell began working on an album in tribute to John Lennon, memories and emotions he'd long associated with the late legend’s music, both with The Beatles and as a solo artist, caught up to him. Thinking about almost fifty years ago hearing some of those things for the first time, he says, it ended up being kind of a heavy thing to do.

In collaborating with a few friends — guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and bassist Tony Scherr — the experience was made all the more poignant. “It really did bring us together in this way I’d never felt before,” Frisell reflects. “
It was almost like this healing, warm cloud came over us that the music put there. 

Throughout such classics as “In My Life,” “Beautiful Boy,” and “Across The Universe,” All We Are Saying..., which will be released on September 27 by Savoy Jazz/429 Records, honors Lennon’s artistry with considerate, inspired performances.

I didn’t prepare for it, says Frisell of the effort overall, but then it was like I’d been preparing for it my whole life. 

In making the album did you learn anything about John Lennon’s songs that you perhaps weren’t as aware of before?

It reminded me of how deceptively simple they are sometimes. Some of them maybe just have two chords or three chords. If you analyze it in a conservatory kind of way, it’s like, “Well there’s this, and there’s that.” It doesn’t seem that complicated, but then what happens with it is so extraordinary. You listen for five seconds and then the song just latches onto you. You can’t shake it off. And it’s not because of some big corporate, commercial machinery that’s rammed it down our throats. It’s genuinely because of the music, I think. There really is something transcendent about it; it transcends all. So much of it is so personal to him, but it’s also so universal at the same time. We all know what he’s talking about.

An improvisational spirit runs through much of your work in general. On this one in particular, how did you channel that into songs which are already so ingrained in the culture?

I didn’t want to re-harmonize them or deconstruct them. For me they’re just these perfect gems of music. The only thing we had to do was play it. The luxury I had there was that the band I was with, we have such a long history together and a way of playing together. Fifteen years ago I started playing with most of them in one way or another. So there’s just a way of communicating with each other when we play that we don’t really have to figure things out or talk about them. We just start going. It’s improvising, but it’s also sort of—


Yeah. I mean, nothing on this album was really worked out or figured out beforehand. We just started playing whatever song it was. And there’s kind of a way we have a way of playing... One person will start a melody and another person will finish it. There were no arrangements. We had charts, but the charts were just representations of whatever the original version of the song was. Then we just went for it. For me that’s the most inspiring way of playing anyways. Whatever the music is, I want it to feel like everyone at every moment there’s not one person that’s less important than another.

How do you maintain your enthusiasm for making music, whether you’re interpreting someone else’s music or writing your own? What keeps you curious and what keeps you motivated? 

I guess I take it for granted, but that’s the least of my… It’s more fighting to have the time to stay in the world of music all the time. There’s never any lack of… You never have to worry about what’s coming next. If you’re in the music there’s something always there right in front of you, like, “Wow, look at that,” or, “I want to try this.” That’s what it’s been my whole life. I never have to think of what to do next because it’s like this overwhelming amount of possibilities always right in front of me. So I try to get to as much as I can.

So the well never runs dry?

No. I mean… Music is crazy. You wake up every day and there’s as much in front of you that you haven’t done as there ever has been. You never think it’s the end of it. To me it feels good being in it. I never get tired of it, that’s for sure.

Does the guitar challenge you still?

Oh yeah, totally. Every day, I swear, it doesn’t feel that much different than the very first time I ever picked it up. I mean, I’ve been playing it for 50 years or something. And then today I’ll grab it and it’s like, “Oh my God, how am I gonna play this thing?” It still feels like that. You’re just at the beginning all the time. That’s something I’ve had to get comfortable with. It can be discouraging. It can bum you out, like, “Man, I’m never gonna get it.” But then part of the thing with music is you have to be comfortable with the idea that you’re never gonna get it right. You just have to get as close as you can. Everything I play is just an approximation of what I wish I could really play.