Bill Frisell – Dreaming of His Past

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Bill Frisell. Photo supplied.

Bill Frisell speaks with such child-like wonder of his delight in making music that it’s more like we’re chatting about building sand-castles. So it’s no wonder he delves back into his childhood for inspiration; back to his early memories of surf music and jazz, or, as with his current project, the film and television music of those formative years.

His When You Wish Upon a Star album pulls together material as diverse as the theme from Bonanza and incidental music from Psycho, reflecting someone who grew up loving film and TV as much as music. “They’re so intertwined,” he says in his soft, tentative way. “The first time I saw a guitar was on a television. And then the television and the electric guitar both came of age during my childhood. So it’s just all mixed in like that.”

Frisell loves revisiting music associated with his younger self with the ears of his older self. “It’s like seeing it through a completely different lens, and seeing things that I never saw before,” he says. “Like the song that maybe I tried to play when I was 12 years old, and now I try to play it again, and there’s all this stuff I can hear in it that I never knew was there. I know there’s a nostalgic element to it, but it’s also trying to reinforce the roots or firm up the foundation of where I’m coming from. I’m not looking to go backwards so much, but try to get stronger with where I come from, and then hopefully I can still go off into the future somewhere.”

Frisell is one of the world’s great improvisers. In addition to nearly 60 albums as leader or co-leader his uniquely mesmerizing approach to the guitar has been used by people as diverse as Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, John Zorn, Hal Willner and Renee Fleming. Nonetheless with this project his intent is to replicate the original versions as closely as possible, albeit with different instrumentation and Petra Haden’s ingenuous singing.

“It’s just this natural transformation that happens,” he says. “If I hear a Bernard Hermann piece and if I really understand it, and then I play it on my guitar, it somehow gets transformed. It’s my voice that’s putting it out. So everybody in the band is doing that. We’re just singing these songs with our own voices as true as we can be to what it is, but something happens in the translation that brings out different details in the music.”

Chemistry between individuals predominates over specific instrumentation in the way Frisell assembles bands, and here the other collaborators are bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. He also places a premium on collective music-making over a soloist-and-accompaniment format. “I mean that happens,” he says, “but it’s more about the constant collective conversation, or holding each other up, or surrounding each other, or passing things back and forth all the time. So it’s not like a clear formula at all. It’s always shifting. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Although Frisell seems quiet and shy by nature, it is a reticence that evaporates when he is playing. “In a way I feel it’s more my true voice than my speaking voice,” he says of the guitar. “As soon as I start playing I feel like, ‘Now this is me.’ Also it’s a way to let your imagination really go. That’s the world that’s maybe even more real for me than… Like now I’m struggling to find words for it. When I’m playing then it’s just there.”

He has been losing himself in music since those oft-remembered childhood days. “Maybe I didn’t even realise it at the time, but as I look back that’s the place where I feel at home,” he says. “There’s the music and then also the community of musicians. Those are the people that I’ve always felt comfortable with. I feel like I’ve been so lucky along the way with getting so much support and encouragement from other musicians. And then the music itself always tells you what to do, somehow.”

Especially if you’re Bill Frisell.

Bill Frisell: York Theatre, Seymour Centre, June 3.

See Eric Myers’ review of Emma Franz’s bio-pic about Bill, Bill Frisell, A Portrait here: The film is being screened in Melbourne on June 10: