Learning Lennon: Guitar Master Bill Frisell

For the musically prolific, releasing too many records too close together can be problematic or worse. Just because you can make a record every week in your home studio doesn’t mean you should. The impulse to commit every golden thought and performance to tape without self-editing or even pausing to reflect screams narcissism run amok. Asking listeners—even dedicated fans—to then buy and spend time listening to half-baked nonsense that might have become something, given more time and care, is a sure career destroyer. There’s truth in the old saw about building demand, avoiding saturation, and creating a hunger among the listening public. Most critical of all, despite downloads, piracy, and Lady Gaga’s pointy hats and eggshell entrances, the old Hollywoodism still applies: while spontaneity may sound like a radical idea, you’re only as good as your last album.

All of which makes guitarist Bill Frisell very, very good: He’s one of the few musicians of any genre who can keep up a constant torrent of new records, every one exciting, engaging, or, at the very least, entertaining. His latest album—at least, it was the last when this issue went to print—is All We Are Saying . . ., a typically oblique and utterly successful Frisell-ian take on the music of John Lennon, from both his solo and Beatle years. The easy grace and fertile imaginings of the performances again give rise to questions that have become ever more relevant over the 30-plus records Frisell has made since the mid-1980s: Is there anything the man can’t play uniquely on guitar? He’s played rock-oriented ballads with Elvis Costello (Deep, Dead and Blue), composed new music to accompany Buster Keaton’s silent films (Go West, The High Sign/One Week) mixed world-music flavors with the Intercontinentals (The Intercontinentals), picked country music (Nashville), and done many jazz records with the likes of Dave Holland, Elvin Jones, and Ron Carter. Is there any genre he can’t put his signature textures on? Any songwriting style he can’t master? And when can we expect the McCartney record? Or the set of Harrison covers?

“Harrison! Oh man, yeah, totally,” the famously soft-spoken guitarist says, sitting on a couch in the lobby of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. In town for two days to record with guitarist Jakob Bro, the next morning Frisell flies to Denver for a guest spot on an upcoming Ron Miles album. Sporting a new pair of red Puma Clydes, Frisell has, among his many other talents, the most charming and mischievous smile you’ll ever see on an adult.

“When I was a kid, [Harrison] was actually the guy, he was the guitar guy. And he was the quiet, shy one, or whatever that appeared to be. And [like him], whenever I played in bands, I was always the guy that was sort of standing in the back. They would always tell me, ‘You gotta move around more,’ but it never felt comfortable.”

If the results on All We Are Saying . . . were all captured in one or two takes, as Frisell says they were, then comfortable is too weak a word to describe the telepathic connection shared among Frisell and his longtime bandmates, Jenny Scheinman (violin), Greg Leisz (pedal steel), Tony Scherr (bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums) while making the album. Five years ago, they were asked to play a set of Lennon tunes at a gig in Paris. A subsequent show in London of the same material convinced Frisell and the band that the songs of Lennon and the Beatles provided them with an amazing amount of common ground. The idea of a Lennon-centric set was resurrected two years ago at Yoshi’s jazz club, in Oakland, California, during a series of Frisell-led dates in which the guitarist played music from across the spectrum of his recordings, including the Majestic Silver Strings sessions of 2010, with Buddy Miller and Marc Ribot (see Stereophile, March 2011, pp.65–69). It was around this time that Frisell left Nonesuch Records after the nearly unprecedented 20-year run, and signed with the latest incarnation of the Savoy label, who, according to Frisell, were immediately (if not rabidly) enthusiastic about the commercial potential of an album of Lennon covers. Frisell twists his neck and looks quizzical, before shaking his head and saying he’s heard rumblings about this being a populist move for a player whose greatest strength has been his seemingly effortless ability to defy easy definition.

“I’m not doing it to try and sell records. Every once in a while, people think I’m doing something like that. When I went and did the Nashville record, I got to go and meet these people and play with them. To me, it was one of the most risky and dangerous things, and yet people said, ‘Oh he’s selling out, he’s playing it safe.’ To me, it was the opposite. And this [Lennon record]—for me, I’m just doing it for the music. No, it would be nice if I sold a couple CDs, but . . .”

Like a lot of Frisell’s recording projects, this one was completed in a matter of days, in sessions that took place just months after the release of Sign of Life. On that album Frisell played with the 858 Quartet, a splinter group from his usual working band that features fellow musical searchers Scheinman, Eyvind Kang (viola), and Hank Roberts (cello).

“I feel like I didn’t prepare for this at all—not in the normal way that I would sweat over doing a project like this. I didn’t arrange anything, ’cause everybody knew the stuff. The last thing I wanted to do was reharmonize it or jazz it up. We didn’t do that at all. I had charts, but they were just as close as I could get to what the literal . . . what John did or what the Beatles did. So I didn’t change a note of the music.

“Some of it is so simple. Some of those songs . . . it’s like there’s nothing there. It’s just a few notes and a couple chords, but you just hear . . . it’s got . . . there’s some sort of extra magic. It’s just perfect, crystallized: everything that needs to be there, and just a little something extra that makes it really interesting.

“It’s all so personal. I had my things with the [Lennon] songs, and everybody else in the band had their things, but I felt like on every song we got something that was beyond just the notes. Something happened that felt like we connected with what it was—at least, what it meant for me. I was trusting the language that we have. I wanted that to come out. Everybody in the band I’ve been playing with for at least 15 years, so when we play, we don’t have to talk. We just sort of passed the thing around.”

The audible chemistry between band members that’s such a big part of the success of All We Are Saying . . . (the album is this issue’s “Recording of the Month”; see p.151) is something that Frisell speaks of with reverence. Having a unit of like-minded old hands, who lead or follow with just a nod or a glance, made it possible to record iconic numbers like “Come Together” or “Nowhere Man” with little rehearsal.

“I met Greg [Leisz] in like 1995, when he came to one of my gigs. I was introduced to him and had no idea who he was, but something felt like, ‘Wow, I really like this guy.’ At the time he was playing with k.d. lang, so I knew he played pedal steel. Without ever playing [together], I just said, ‘Do you want to do a record?’ That became Good Dog, Happy Man.” (For that 1999 album, in a gesture that indicated his self-confidence and generosity, Frisell asked guitarist Ry Cooder to guest on a memorable rendition of “Shenandoah.”)

“Leisz is the other half of my brain working. He’s left-handed, I’m right-handed. His birthday is exactly six months apart from mine on the calendar. A Fender Mustang was the first guitar we each ever bought. Somewhere, maybe late in high school, I went more into jazz and he went more into country music, but what made us play in the beginning was that we grew up with all the same music and we sort of learned in the same way. I feel like we both can play full force without tiptoeing around each other.

“And Jenny [Scheinman] . . . Well, I just can’t buy into the idea of a hierarchy, that any kind of music is better than another. How can you say [Andrés] Segovia played better than Robert Johnson? Or Jim Hall is better than Jimi Hendrix? Jenny is of a different generation [from Frisell and Leisz], but she had that whole thing going on simultaneously—playing totally noisy, crazy stuff, fiddle tunes, bebop tunes, Django Reinhardt tunes—and it was like, ‘Okay, that makes sense to me.'”

The unseen sixth member of the band is producer Lee Townsend, who has served as Frisell’s producer and manager since he produced Frisell’s final ECM album, Lookout for Hope, in 1987. Other clients of Townsend and Phyllis Oyama’s agency, Songline/Tonefield Productions, include John Scofield, Loudon Wainwright III, and Floratone. The sessions for the Lennon album were held at the famed Fantasy studios in Berkeley, California, where many legendary jazz albums were recorded. Asked if he thinks of himself as a jazz musician, Frisell shrugs.

“When I was in high school and I was playing clarinet, there were real strict rules about everything. And then I was playing in rock bands, funk bands, whatever. But then when I found jazz . . . to me, that was like, ‘Oh wow, this is the place where you can do anything!’

“I’m okay if you want to think of it as jazz. But then just the word, for some people it means one thing, for others it means another thing. Every time you put a word on something, it boxes it in. To me, jazz means the people who inspired me and still inspire me. Sonny Rollins and Monk—to me, what they are doing is using everything that’s around them, their whole experience, and transforming it. They’re not following any rules about what it’s supposed to be. So in that way, I would hope that I might be some kind of jazz musician.”

Frisell is famous for the tones and textures he can coax from his guitars, and it’s always fascinating to see which of his many instruments he uses on a given record. All We Are Saying . . . includes a photo, on the inside of the CD package, of the pair he plays on the album. One is a blond electric guitar modeled on a harmony Super Chief from the 1950s; the other has the classic lines of a vintage Fender.

“It’s a ’63 Stratocaster. I never dreamed I’d have a guitar—except in 1963—like this. As far as money goes, it’s worth a ridiculous amount. This friend of mine in Seattle, he builds amplifiers, and he got this guitar years ago by trading an amp for it. And then time went by and the price of it goes crazy. He doesn’t play that much, and I’ve used his amps a lot, and one day he asked me if I’d trade him one of my guitars for it, because it would mean a lot to him to have one of my guitars. In the past, when I’ve had valuable guitars, I’ve said, ‘I can’t take this on the road, it’s too valuable.’ But this one, I started carrying it around and I took it on tour right away. The lesson was, fuck all that and just play the thing.”

And play Frisell has. In a little more than a year, he’s released three albums (two on Savoy, one on Entertainment One/Naïve). His next project is to write and play the music to accompany filmmaker Bill Morrison’s new project, a documentary about the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. As is usually the case with this most prolific of artists, a full slate of sideman appearances on other musicians’ albums also awaits, as does . . . .well, he’s not sure, but it’ll come to him soon.

“I have such a haphazard . . . I don’t have any big plan for anything. I’m not going after anything; I don’t feel like I’m even ambitious. Things sort of seem to appear in front of me. All I have to do is open my eyes and there’s something to do—I don’t have to figure it out. You just go into it and it just takes you all over the place. I’ve been so lucky to have these kinds of opportunities to actually document it.

“For my whole life, that’s what music’s been for me. It’s the place where anything goes—whatever’s in your wildest imagination, that’s what it’s about. You can take incredible risks, but nobody gets hurt. I think I’ll go up to the Empire State Building and just dive off. You can do that in the music, and you can really do it . . . and you can fly away. Or you can hit the concrete, too, and you can get back up and do it again.

“For me, nothing [I’ve done] feels like it’s finished—or it’s never quite right. I had to figure that out a while ago: that you’re never going to get it right. That can be a weight that will keep you from just doing it. You have to get comfortable with the idea that, every day, there’s as much out in front of you that you didn’t do as there was when you first started. I guess that’s what keeps you going, but you can’t let it get you. I’m 60 years old, and I feel like I haven’t even begun to do anything right.”

Ahhh, Bill . . . All we are saying is, there are some Frisell fans out there who beg to differ.

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