A few summers ago at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, Claudia Engelhart, then in her 19th year as Bill Frisell’s sound engineer and aide de camp of choice when—as is more often the case than not—he leaves his Seattle home for the road, was discussing the appeal of her employer’s musical personality.
“Over the years, it feels like Bill has been embracing song,” Engelhart said. “He really feels what a song is meant to be. His sound is so deep, and he can do so much with so little. I daydream a lot while I’m mixing sound for Bill; he takes you to these different places.”
These remarks seem particularly salient to Frisell’s latest, All We Are Saying... [Savoy], on which the 60-year-old guitarist—joined by violinist Jenny Scheinman, steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen—explores 16 songs by John Lennon across a timeline that spans “Please, Please Me” to “Beautiful Boy.”
Frisell signed with Savoy in June 2010, following a fruitful two-decade run with Nonesuch. Apparently, the label has no fears of over-exposure: Released on September 27, All We Are Saying... is their third Frisell release in 13 months, following Beautiful Dreamers, a genre-spanning, 16-tune “Americana”-tinged suite with his individualistic, equilateral triangle trio comprising violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston, and Sign of Life, on which Frisell’s “858 Quartet” (Kang, Scheinman, and cellist Hank Roberts) navigate 17 Frisell compositions penned in response to a series of paintings by the German artist Gerhard Richter.
Like most of Frisell’s documented output, All We Are Saying... operates on several levels, elemental and complex. On the one hand, you could call it a low-deconstruction-content, minimally improvised celebration of Lennon’s melodies, propelled by Wollesen’s distinctive beat, at once phat and open, and Scherr’s rich tone and never-calling-attention-to-itself harmonic command.
On the other, Frisell is an extraordinarily sophisticated player, able to incorporate electronic loops and sound modifiers—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—in real time within the flow to entexture his pithy declamations.
It’s a compelling, hypnotic date, and no one else could have made it. Last week, in the midst of a few days in Denver, his hometown, to record with trumpeter Ron Miles—a fellow alumnus of Denver’s East High School—and drum shaman Brian Blade, Frisell spoke about his recent activity.
You’ve been on the road with Ron Miles this year in preparation for The Great Flood project.
Yes. The film, by Bill Morrison, is based on the 1927 flood, what led up to that historically, and what happened after it. I’m reading a book about it called The Rising Tide, which is spectacularly good. At the beginning of the book, there’s a map of the United States, and it shows the Mississippi River and the Mississippi Valley and everything that feeds into it.
Last spring we played at the Village Vanguard for a week. Right after that we went to New Orleans and worked our way up the Mississippi River, New Orleans, through Mississippi and Arkansas, and ending up in Chicago. The most bizarre thing was that the river was flooding again when we did this trip, and they were doing some of the same things that they did in 1927. They have to flood one side of the river. The decision is made on, “Well, let’s see; there’s rich people on this side and poor people on that side—what shall we do?” The same stuff. So many things that happened back then were the seeds of what’s happening now.
Anyway, all that feeds what I’m thinking about with the project, which I’ve been slowly writing music for and thinking about over three, four, five years. When we play the piece now, when we’re looking at the film and see Vicksburg or Greenville back then—we were in those places. We felt the temperature and the humidity. It resonates in a different way than just handing people a piece of paper with music written on it.
Although you launched the All We Are Saying... project in 2005, you recorded it in June, in the middle of creating the music for The Great Flood.
Yeah. Or you could say I began it in 1964. In one way, I didn’t prepare for the Lennon thing at all. We just went in the studio and did it. You can look at it that way, or the other way is I’ve been preparing for it ever since I started to play the guitar, basically.
Yes, you went in the studio and did it, but with people you play with all the time and with whom you’ve previously played this music.
Yes. We learned some of the songs on a tour in 2005 with Jenny and Greg. Then I just let it go, but more recently we had one gig at Yoshi’s where we played them with Tony and Kenny. That was right around the time that I was starting this new relationship with Savoy, and they wanted to record it. I didn’t prepare in any way. I’m not going to reharmonize or rewrite the music. The music is already there. To me, it’s perfect the way it is, and there’s nothing to redo about it. All there is to do is play it. I was playing with friends I’ve been playing with for almost 15 years, and we’ve developed this language playing together. We just went in the studio and played the way we play.
Talk about choosing the repertoire.
It was sort of haphazard. I didn’t want to have only Beatles songs or only later songs. I wanted to have stuff from throughout his whole career. But we could easily probably do another album tomorrow. There’s so much there. It’s almost like I’d look at one song, and, “this is good; let’s do that”—and something would happen on every song. Everyone in the band has their own memories and feelings and experiences with that music, and the words were sort of in the back of your mind the whole time, too. So there’s this really rich soil to draw from. It wasn’t just the notes on paper.
Your fellow musicians say that you have an uncanny ability to capture the voice of the people who sang the songs you play. Were you trying in some way to emulate John Lennon’s voice, or delivery, or some ineffable quality about him?
It’s never really literally, exactly right, but that’s an engine or something that drives me, like hearing the sound in my head. If I play a song that I associate with a singer, like a Sam Cooke song or an Aretha Franklin song, hearing that sound is what’s making the notes come out. That was definitely happening with this. Like, when we played “Mother,” I just about had a heart attack, because the way he sings it is so gut-wrenching, powerful, painful. I was hearing that when I was playing it, and trying to be in that. It was weirdly difficult. It was a real emotional thing to do at that time.
Tony Scherr told me that one thing that strikes him about your playing is your patience. He said: “The thing I learned from Bill is to accept things, to surrender to what’s going to happen. To not have to know the answer.” How long did it take you to develop that quality in your playing?
Sometimes people say, “Wow, you’re so relaxed.” But I don’t know. The whole thing with music is, I’m the only one who knows where I am right now, and to me it feels like I’m at the very beginning. Every day it feels like you’re just starting. What you have before you is infinite to try to get together. So whatever that thing is Tony was describing, I hope it’s there. I’m not sure if I feel it myself.
Perhaps it relates to your remark about just playing, and allowing the music to come through.
Well, that’s right. I guess this was another part of the ongoing process of learning how to let that happen. I guess I was already interested in music before I heard the Beatles, but that was such a gigantic moment in my life at such an impressionable time, and then it’s just been there all along. So to recognize that at this point, there’s nothing really to do more with it. Just let it be there.
Do you see these three recordings—Beautiful Dreamers, Sign of Life, All We Are Saying...—as connected in some way?
The whole thing is connected somehow, but each record that you mentioned to me was sort of its own world...or a star amongst the whole galaxy of music or something. With Beautiful Dreamers, I wanted to document that group with Rudy and Eyvind. It’s a real band that I want to have exist and play, and I love playing with those guys in that combination. It’s incredible. It’s gotten to this point where there’s no real planning or thinking involved. We just start playing, and it goes on its own, it feels like.
Sign Of Life has a collective quality. There doesn’t seem to be much soloing on it. It stands out from a lot of CDs that come my way these days.
That was unique in that it was exactly a year ago that I went to Vermont on retreat and started to write that music. In about three weeks, I wrote music every day, and then at the end of the three weeks I met the guys, and we played through some of it and then we recorded it.
So the whole thing happened within a month of the music being written to being played and recorded. It’s totally different from the Lennon thing, where the music had been floating around for more than 40 years.
The compositions on Sign of Life seemed to embody the ideas you expressed in a remark to me a few years ago, You said, “There’s no judgment about high or low; to play an old banjo song that has one chord, to do that right, is just as difficult to play as some Elliott Carter music.”
I don’t know, but I hope so. Again, it’s something that maybe you think of later. But when you’re in the midst of the music, for sure I don’t want to judge it, and I don’t want people that I’m with judging it. I don’t want anybody thinking this is stupid because there’s just one chord. You have to just be in the music, whatever it is at that moment.
When I was younger, when I was much younger, I think I had more of an attitude of some sort of hierarchy. I heard Surf music, and then I heard the Beatles, and then I heard the Rolling Stones, and then that led me to jazz, and as the music got more and more complex... In certain ways it’s easy to misinterpret... You get seduced by some sort of complex intellectual thing that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.
I notice that you’ve been commissioned to write a piece based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Kaddish,” for the Tune-In Festival in New York City in February. Have any notes been written?
No. When I leave Denver, I’m going back to that place in Vermont where I wrote the Sign of Life music. That’s where I’m going to start entering into that.
Does “Kaddish” have a resonance to you similar to John Lennon’s songs, or would it be later in your development?
Later, I would think, although he was always kind of around. I don’t even know when I first... In high school, or maybe even earlier, thinking about beatniks and all that stuff. Actually, I don’t know when it was that I re-read On The Road, but it freaked me out how much stuff was happening in Denver. Neal Cassady went to my high school. In On The Road they’re hanging out on Larimer Street. One of my guitars I bought in a pawn shop on Larimer Street. When I was a kid, I’d go down there all the time.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Larimer Street was the total skid row thing, and it was just lined with pawn shops, and there were incredible guitars, just one after another. My memory of it has probably been exaggerated in my mind, but I can still picture what these rows of old Fender guitars looked like. But in the summer of 1989, my wife and daughter and I spent a little time in Seattle one summer, which is when we decided we were going to move out there.
Then we drove from Seattle to Denver, and I went to Larimer Street, and there were still a couple of blocks that looked the same as back in the ‘60s. There was still a pawn shop there, and we went in, and there was a bunch of guitars, and I saw this Fender Jaguar guitar hanging up. When I was in high school, the second electric guitar I ever got was a Jaguar. So I bought that guitar in that pawn shop.
Actually, I was almost going to bring that Jaguar with me, but I changed my mind. Mostly I’m playing some kind of a Telecaster. I have a lot of guitars now, and do a lot of switching around. The Telecaster is sort of the home base, but then I’ll go off from there and use different ones. For the Lennon recording, I used a guitar made by a Canadian guitar builder. Joe Yanuziello is his name. There’s a picture of it in the new album. I used a Fender Strato-Caster and that Yanuziello guitar.
Is the process of choosing which guitar you’re going to use as intuitive as the process of playing it?
It’s weird. There’s definitely something to be said about just playing one guitar. Jim Hall basically just plays one guitar. But for me, the guitars talk to each other. I’ll pick up one, and there will be certain quirks or things about it that will lead me into... certain areas of the neck will feel different, or certain notes will come out in a different way. I’ll learn what that is, and it will make me play things that I hadn’t thought of playing.
Then I go to another guitar, and I can sort of carry that with me. I can play what I learned on the other guitar, and then other things will reveal themselves on the next guitar. I keep switching around all the time, and it’s like they all lead me into little corners that I wouldn’t normally go in from there. So that’s my rationalization—having so many of them. It’s not really like collecting... I like them as objects, too, and they bring memories of things—they’ll remind me of certain music. But I don’t collect them to hang them on the wall to look at. I’m actually playing them.