Guitarist Bill Frisell looks like a kind and gentle man — with his specs and his tousled hair, his typically genial smile and a career that deftly spans jazz and country music, film scores and classical string groups, atmospheric Americana and classic American pop music. Frisell, it seems, likes — and is open to interpreting — just about any kind of music.
And, like the rest of us, he loves The Beatles.
Frisell’s most recent recording is All We Are Saying, a set that interprets songs by John Lennon. Along with Jenny Scheinman on violin and Greg Leisz on guitar, Frisell had previously played this music on a European tour. Bassist Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen’s drums round out the rhythm section here. The most remarkable thing about the disc is the amazing fidelity of the arrangements to the original recordings.
Without question, this sounds like a classic Bill Frisell production. The textures of the arrangements slide and ooze with bending steel guitar and with aching fiddle lines. Frisell’s own guitar is distinctive, blending clean jazz tone with washes of sound that hum, throb, and surge. But there is very little improvising in the traditional “jazz” sense. Rather, the band plays the songs as songs, using their solid verse/chorus structures as intended and varying texture more than melody.
In some cases, the decision to stick with the original feel of the song is almost shocking, as with “Revolution”, which comes out of the gate like the 1960s rocker that it was to begin with. By investigating every corner of the original songs — not just their melodies and forms but also the counter-melodies and little licks that we all memorized years ago as Lennon and Beatle fans — Frisell reaffirms how well-crafted they were to begin with.
We got the chance to ask Bill Frisell about his love for this music as well as his unique approach to the guitar. With great affection, self-deprecation and, yes, kindness, he told us why playing Lennnon’s music is like coming home again.
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Let’s talk about John Lennon, the musician. We all know these songs so well, but what did you learn about his composing in working to arrange and rethink the songs for All We Are Saying?
What was amazing about this project is that I didn’t touch the music really. I didn’t think of it as a chance for me to reconstruct or re-harmonize the songs. Everything we did was from looking at the original version. The power of the songs is such that the songs themselves brought us together as a band. The songs themselves create the arrangements. It’s more than just the corporate machine ramming them down our throat for our whole life.
It is amazing on a technical, harmonic/melodic level. The songs are not all that complicated, but they transcend things — they touch everybody. This music was massively commercially successful, but it was because it was touching people.
Your arrangements are, in several respects, extremely respectful of the original recordings — maintaining certain motifs and licks aside from the melodies and basic harmonies. Did you feel that these were integral parts of the compositions that needed to be respected?
There’s so much in there already. It’s not up to me to think of something new. With so much of my music, I’ll think of a singer — I’ll play an Aretha Franklin song or a Hank Williams song, and I’ll think of the lyrics and person’s voice. I didn’t really have to do anything to the songs. I didn’t prepare for this recording at all. Normally I think about a new project all the time, trying to learn a song or rework it. But everyone in this band had their own experience with the music.
What are your earliest memories of hearing Lennon’s music — what did it make you feel at the time?
I was 13 when I watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the biggest musical jolt of my life. I was already thinking about the guitar at the time, getting fired up about playing. It was a time of surf music and hotrods. I was way into the Beach Boys, and a kid across the street got a guitar. I thought it was the coolest thing. I was hearing American Bandstand on TV: the Four Seasons, Steve & Edie. Then the Beatles came along. I remember that my parents got a Time magazine and I thought — what in the world? Their hair, the boots, it was insane. Then, hearing them on TV was incredible.
The next day at school it was already a major historical event. That was the beginning for me. I got so super-fired up about music in general. That’s when I really started buying records. And there were all these TV shows with music and dances at school.
What are your earliest memories of playing these tunes as a young musician?
Soon after hearing the Beatles in 1964, maybe a year later, I got my first electric guitar. At that time, if you owned the instrument, you were automatically in a band. And my friends and I just started playing. Within a few weeks, we played at a party and got paid $5 for the whole band — we were already doing gigs.
Even as a young musician, it was clear that the structures of the songs were incredible. Doing this project was a big reminder. Some songs are simple, but they are also perfectly crystallized structures.
This project reminds me of The Sweetest Punch, your recordings of the songs composed by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello — with relatively few improvised solos and a great focus on the compositions themselves. Were the projects similar for you?
That project was another extraordinary opportunity for me. The process with that project was different, however. I recorded my versions from the lead sheets without hearing what Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach were doing in a different recording studio at the same time. I just had a cassette tape of Burt and Elvis doing them on piano and voice and simple lead sheets. I was learning that music, brand-new, and trying out what to do with it.
Talk about unusual forms and unique writing — Bacharach is certainly that. As a kid I heard his music as very schmaltzy, but then I learned. I never got to meet Bacharach, but I talked to him on the phone once. It was incredible.
These recordings seem tightly arranged. Did you write out most of the parts for the band, or was this a case of the band collaborating in the arrangements?
We didn’t figure the arrangements out ahead of time. We just started playing — we went for it. These are musicians I’ve been playing with for years and years, so there’s not a lot we have to talk about. I would write out what I though was pretty close to the original in lead sheets, but that was it.
Despite the tightness of this record, I think of you, first, as an improviser. How does the ethic of the improvising “jazz” musician work in the face of songs that remain the very models of pop classicism?
For me, the most exciting thing, even when I’m writing something new of my own, some so-called “composed music”, is the language of improvising. On this music. we have the information, the composition with its melodies and harmonies, but there is a collective, spontaneous orchestration from the band. It’s not like somebody is out front playing a solo, true. But the most exciting thing is when everyone in the band has equal weight in the music all the time.
This band, with violin and plenty of slide guitar in the arrangements, lends itself to a country sound. Do feel that sound was a natural with Lennon’s music?
I didn’t really think about this ahead of time. It’s just about the people I’m playing with. It wasn’t even my idea for this band to play Lennon’s music. Greg and Jenny and I were in Paris and we were asked to give it a try. We did it, then we ended up doing it for the rest of the tour, which was really cool. It was amazing: we’d play the first tune and the audience would recognize it. Then after a couple more songs you could see the audience realize what we were up to.
As a guitarist, you have both a certain “signature sound” that might commonly be associated with you, and you also have ability to change your sound based on the song, the project, the style — whatever is required. As a musician, was “finding your sound” important to your development, or do you take more pride in being a bit of a chameleon, sublimating your individuality to the songs?
It’s something that I don’t really think about. I try to immerse myself in the music — that’s the number one thing I’m going for. Every time I play, I try to be completely sunk in so that all the walls fall and boundaries melt away. That’s the best feeling in the world and what I’m always hoping for. I don’t think about my sound when I’m playing. Whatever my individual sound is, it comes from what my limitations are. It’s what causes us to have a unique voice.