Bill Frisell Turns Attention to Classic Soundtracks

Americana, blues, surf, rock, avant garde, soul-guitarist Bill Frisell has dabbled in it all in his own jazz-infused way. His latest project harkens back to the Golden Age of television and film. When You Wish Upon A Star finds Frisell reclaiming 14 classic soundtracks of his youth, from James Bond to Westerns, the mafia to the macabre. The project grew out of a series of Lincoln Center gigs, and Frisell says he couldn’t help but get swallowed up by it.

“There is this sort of autobiographical thing going on there. Everything on there has some kind of connection to me in all kinds of ways,” he says.

Such connections are evident in the creative and unexpectedly dynamic elements that continually embody his music. It helps that Frisell frequently utilizes the same cast of supporting players — Eyvind Kang on viola, drummer Rudy Royston, bass player Thomas Morgan, and vocalist Petra Haden — who understand Frisell’s musical genius and how to complement it.

“The reason I have them there is I don’t have to tell them anything,” he explains. “I don’t want to tell them anything. I just want to hear what they come up with. They continually blow my mind.”

Audiences too, will feel the same way.

New Times reached Frisell at the Intercontinental Hotel in Austin to talk about his new album, growing up during the early days of TV (only four channels!), and what it takes to recreate classic soundtracks. 
New Times: It occurred to me that when I called the hotel I just asked for “Bill Frisell.” Frequently, when I am calling musicians I get these really fun pseudonyms to ask for. Musicians in hiding, I guess. So, you’re not worried about groupies stalking you?

Bill Frisell: Well, it hasn’t happened yet. (Laughs) I’m still waiting.

I listened to the new album, When You Wish Upon A Star. Your music, albeit predominantly jazz-based, has crossed multiple genres from Nashville to Memphis, from surf to rock. What was the inspiration to rework classic movie and TV theme songs?

Over the last few months I did a series of concerts at Lincoln Center. It was called "The Roots of Americana." I had the opportunity to do six different things there. I had to come up with these different themes. I did one on Woody Guthrie, one on the Mississippi River, one on George Gershwin. Also, Petra Haden just did an album of movie themes, so I thought this was perfect. It started out as just a gig, but the record company got fired up about it, and it blossomed into this whole other thing. Once I put my foot in part way, it was pretty intense thinking about how much the music has affected me coming from TV and movies. It was really my whole life. It’s crazy. There’s no escaping the impact of all that stuff.

Once I started looking around it was, “Oh, I’ve got to do this, Oh, I’ve got to do that.” I would remember something. It brought up all kinds of things. What was amazing is that I’d remember an incredibly moving piece of music or an amazing movie and it would conjure up all this other emotional stuff that was around in my life at the time I saw that movie. It’s what the music and movie did on it’s own but it would sort of spring outward from there.

The emotional connection makes sense. TV was a fresh concept. It was fascinating and there weren’t 500 channels of banal stuff. It meant something and created a strong personal impact.

I grew up in Denver in the ’50s. I remember when our father brought home our first TV and it became this …. thing. And later on a friend across the street had the first color TV I’d ever seen. I’d go over there every Sunday. We’d watch Walt Disney, and then Bonanza would be on after that. It was like an event. We’d all sit around this giant glowing thing in a wooden cabinet. (Laughs)

Some of the tracks you cover are more recognizable to the originals — “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “You Only Live Twice,” for example. And yet, “Bonanza” gets a completely reworked and fresh treatment. What was the process for deciding each songs direction?

What I always do is I just try to learn the thing as close as I can to whatever it is. A lot of research goes into all this. Whatever song it is I’ll try and check out as many different versions as I can, or find the earliest version or see what other people did with it. I’m not trying to change anything at all. I’m trying to find exactly what it is and then understand it. And then we just play it. There is a transformation in it where each person in the band just brings their own voice to it. Basically, the idea is just playing the song together. Maybe it will feel different, but all the straight ahead musical information that is there is there in front of us, and then we just drift away, I guess.

“Tales From the Far Side” is something you wrote.

Yeah, later on I thought, “Oh man, I actually wrote one myself.” So I thought I has to stick that one on there.

It’s very different than the traditional themes on the album, and in fact, your playing toward the end reminds me a little of your Naked City days.

Where it just goes more out there, yeah. It was a Gary Larson show. It was Halloween show or something, and it was long enough a go that I wish more people could have seen it. It was a one-time thing.

In looking at the track list I notice a couple songs have two versions each. That’s not unusual in the jazz world — Miles Davis did that all the time. But, are there tracks that just didn’t work and landed on the cutting room floor?

Actually, no. We recorded more than what’s on there. I wanted to put everything on there. There wasn’t enough room. It wasn’t a matter of deleting anything. Actually, I think they are going to put out a 45 vinyl single of a couple songs that aren’t on the CD. I’m excited about that—to actually have a little single thing. There’s tons more stuff I want to do or things we just didn’t get too. Other James Bond things. There’s just so much stuff. That Psycho thing, there’s other sections of that music I want to play. There’s millions of TV themes I want to play, like Wild Wild West. It’s sort of like the tip of the iceberg. You just get into it the best you can, as deep as you can, and when it’s done, I wish I'd done more. When we play live we’ll have chances to play other things. And with the music that we did, it’s not just like it’s static. It’s not stuck in that one place. It definitely evolves and changes each night we play it.

As always, you’ve assembled a stellar cast of friends working with you, most whom you’ve worked with in the past. How much freedom and input did they have or was this your baby from end to end?

I don’t tell anybody what to do, that’s why I have them. I’m looking to them. I just want them to go full force and make their own choices. I spend the time before we get together just gathering the music together. But once the music starts, the reason I have them there is I don’t have to tell them anything. I don’t want to tell them anything. I just want to hear what they come up with. They continually blow my mind. That’s why they’re there.

“Tales From the Far Side” is the youngest song on there, and that’s more than 20-years old. Most of these tracks are from a different generation. Did that thought cross your mind when you made this album?

There is this sort of autobiographical thing going on there. Everything on there has some kind of connection to me in all kinds of ways. There’s that reason why I chose them. But also there was a different kind of way of working back then. The composers in that time, it was actually human beings in a room playing music that someone wrote with the conductor watching a screen. It blows my mind the level of musicianship. It’s incredible what they did. That’s not to say there still isn’t incredible music in films today. There are guys still doing incredible things, but in so many movies they’ll just take songs from bands and stick them in there. It’s a different world now, so it’s also paying tribute to a that time. All the people that wrote that music are just full on genius masters.

It’s something of a lost art, though not entirely.

No, I’m sure I could look at stuff from last year and find incredible music too. At the same time, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life playing TV and movie music, but I could. There’s just so much. Music really overwhelms you, just the possibilities.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver