The Frisell Show Highlights Magnificent Month of May at MIM
Bill Frisell is the kind of master musician that places like Seattle’s Experience Music Project and north Scottsdale’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) were built to honor.
Bill Frisell’s thrilling, half-century partnership with the electric guitar brings him to the MIM May 17. For years, the Seattle resident’s guitar has been instantly recognizable for its meditative, crisp, slightly playful character. Though he is normally described as a jazz musician, Frisell is not one to be pigeon-holed, as the New York Times noted: “Mixing rock and country with jazz and blues, he’s found what connects them: improvisation and a sense of play.” Frisell has long been a favorite of American music critics who value his creativity, sincerity and depth – setting him apart from our era of aloof, somewhat cynical pop.
His records aren’t platinum; they’re just priceless.
In recent years, Frisell has been somewhat fixated on the music of John Lennon. His May 17 concert ($42.50-47.50) at the MIM will have him performing “All We Are Saying,” with a band featuring Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen.
During a break on a busy European tour, Frisell said his lifelong love affair with the guitar was fueled by two old TV shows. As a child, Frisell recalled, “I used to watch ‘The Mickey Mouse Club.’ At the end of every show, the Mousketeers would gather together and Jimmie Dodd (the leader) would take out his guitar and they’d all sing a song together. I was fascinated - just seeing the guitar as an object. I loved the way it looked. Also, how it seemed to bring everyone together, and they would all calm down and focus on something good.
“Around that time I took a cardboard box, cut it out into the shape of a guitar, put rubber bands on it and I was ready to go. I was about four.”
A few years later, he bought a transistor radio and discovered surf music, idolizing the Beach Boys, the Astronauts, the Ventures. “I’d look at all the album covers and lust after all the cool guitars those guys were playing,” he said.
He was 12 years old on Feb. 9, 1964, when another TV show would ramp up his romance with the guitar: The Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” and electrified America, including a kid in Denver. “Man alive,” Frisell recalls, “was I ever fired up!” He saved up money from a paper route and finally, in the summer of ’65, bought his first electric guitar, a Fender Mustang.
So here he is now, reliving those musical memories of his youth, bringing people together with his guitar to hear the music of John Lennon. “I’ve been playing more than 50 years,” said Frisell, who turned 63 March 18. “It’s all I’ve ever really done. I can’t figure out anything better to do with myself. I’ll never get it right,” he added, with genuine (though bewildering) modesty, “but I’m going to keep trying.”
That’s been his attitude since his early attempts to play rock music, which were rocky. “Back when I first heard the Beatles, I tried to play a few of those songs. They were hard. Things were happening so fast. Discovering new things every day. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky …
“One thing would lead to another. And now lately, after all this time, seemed like a good moment to go back and re-visit John Lennon’s music and try to get deeper into it. It’s been a part of my life – almost everyone’s life it seems – in the fabric. The words, the melodies, the music. I learn something every time I play one of those songs.”
He may be learning, but he is also teaching, as a professorial Frisell didactically, yet delightfully deconstructs Lennon’s tunes. The result is meditative, mesmerizing, fascinating. He and his band slow down “Come Together” until it almost sounds like a record player is spinning a warped version of the single. While the original Beatles’ version has a sinister feel, the Frisell re-make is almost demented, going off on twisted tangents before returning to a devastating chorus.
“Please Please Me” is more upbeat, but no less remarkable. As on the other songs, this is an instrumental version, with no voices; yet the way Frisell plays the notes to the introductory line “Last night I said these words to my girl” might make you think his guitar is singing, with a clear, articulate voice.
It’s quite a spin, really, as Frisell fans for years have been begging his guitar to please, please them. And, without fail, it has.
Imagine there’s no heaven? Tough to do, when you’re listening to Bill Frisell’s guitar playing John Lennon’s music.