Happenstance has played an integral part in guitarist Bill Frisell’s 50-year trajectory through jazz, Americana, rock, folk, country, classical, experimental soundscapes, soundtracks and beyond.
Take, for example, his performance of “All We Are Saying: The Songs of John Lennon” on Wednesday at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center.
“Like so many things I do,” the soft-spoken, affable Frisell said during a phone call from his Seattle home, “it seems like these situations just present themselves. It wasn’t like I had some big idea to do this.”
The Lennon idea actually came from France. A fall 2005 European tour had been booked for Frisell with now-perennial collaborators Jenny Scheinman on violin and Greg Leisz on guitars. Their first stop was the Cite de la Musique (City of Music) in Paris, a multifunctional music complex.
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It was 25 years after Lennon’s murder, and the venue was hosting a tribute to the late Beatle presented in personal, musical, cultural and political contexts. The organizers asked Frisell to complement the exhibition with an instrumental interpretation of Lennon’s songs. Frisell was elated to comply.
“It’s more than 50 years ago that I heard the Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” said Frisell. “That music is so much a part of me, my life, but we never really played it like the way I tried to play a Thelonious Monk song, thousands and thousands of times. So to go back and look at (Lennon and the Beatles) through this lens of my whole life playing, it’s just incredible. The music is so rich that I could just keep playing it and playing it. It just keeps revealing more and more the more we play it.”
Frisell and company arrived in Paris a day before the show “and learned a bunch of those tunes,” he said. The selections included Lennon’s solo work (such as “Beautiful Boy” and “#9 Dream”) and Beatles songs with a prominent Lennon presence (like “Please Please Me” and “Revolution”).
“After we did that first gig, we thought ‘We just learned all these songs, so why don’t we just keep playing them?’ ” Frisell said. “I think the next gig was in Berlin. We were playing and we see how (the audience) kind of recognized the first song. It was an extraordinary feeling to put that on the audience.”
After that tour, Frisell didn’t resurrect Lennon’s songs again until April 2010, during a four-day residency at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland. Each performance was to showcase a different band and set list, so Frisell added drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr to his original Lennon trio and re-explored Lennon’s catalog. This same quintet, with Frisell on Fender Telecaster-type guitars, will perform at Mondavi.
Soon after the band recorded the resultant songs on the Savoy Jazz label. “All We Are Saying …” is a loping and languid album with country-rock influences that includes a dreamy, meditative “Across the Universe” and a nearly free-jazz “Give Peace a Chance.” There’s also a shimmering “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” about which Lennon, in one of his last interviews, echoes Frisell’s own adaptability: “That’s me in my Dylan period again. I am like a chameleon …”
“We didn’t change the music,” Frisell said of Lennon’s tracks. “I didn’t try to re-harmonize it. When we play those songs they are transformed in one way, but it’s through the language we have playing together. Everyone in the band has their own sort of history with the song or is hearing the song in their heads, singing it to themselves. So when we play, the melodies are just being thrown around from one of us to the other.
“Every time, we are finding things that we didn’t even know were there,” Frisell continued. “The music is always evolving. It’s like jumping off a little bit into the unknown.”
Frisell grew up in the Denver area, and as a pre-teen “dinked around” on a neighbor’s electric guitar. Seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” at the age of 13 was life-changing for him.
“I was already super fired up about music,” he said. “I was playing clarinet in the school band. I might have owned a cheap acoustic guitar at that point. I was really into surf music and the Beach Boys. I was lusting after an electric guitar and there was already something in the air.”
Frisell saved up money from a paper route, bought his first first electric guitar and started practicing in his basement. He took lessons from local guitarist Dale Bruning, and attended the University of Northern Colorado and Berklee College of Music in Boston. “(Playing guitar) was pretty much all I’ve done since,” Frisell said.
Frisell said he sees the mid-1960s as a unique time of musical acceleration.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking about how fast the information was coming,” he said. “It was 1964 that I saw the Beatles. A little more than a year later, I get an electric guitar. Then a year later, I hear Jimi Hendrix. And that’s a pretty big jump from the Beatles to Hendrix. Then a year after that or even less I heard a Wes Montgomery record. Then I heard Miles Davis. And it’s like – wow – that all happened within three or four years.”
His “Have a Little Faith” album from 1992 was also an interpretation of songs from composers who inspired him, including Aaron Copland, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins, Madonna and John Philip Sousa. “If I actually play music that I love, it’s different than just listening to it. It’s like I learn it in a different way (and) learn more about myself.
Frisell’s new recording “kind of relates to this in a way,” he said. “It’s all even earlier music but more guitar-related. Electric guitar music.
“But it’s that sort of same way I was describing looking at music that got me started and the culture of my whole life. We do Ventures songs, and Astronauts songs, Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Merle Travis. A Kinks song. It’s all stuff from when I was a kid.”
The yet-to-be-named album is expected to drop this fall. It features the same musicians who will appear at Mondavi except for Scheinman.
Once again, Frisell is moving forward by looking back in time.