Summons to an 8 a.m. interview with a musician usually signifies that the artist — in this case guitarist Bill Frisell — hails from the Big Apple, where it’s closer to beer-thirty. Not so with Frisell, who spoke last week from his home in Seattle. All of this seems to undermine the authenticity of his jazzman credentials, we posited. “Whoa, I guess that’s true. Maybe I’m not a jazz musician,” he laughed. “But actually, I do my best composing at this time of day. Say what you will; there’s a lot to be said for being fresh from sleep. It’s a more pure state of mind. And it’s too early for phone calls usually. The rest of the world leaves me alone.”
Though originally from Baltimore, and often associated with Denver and Boston, where he played his first licks on clarinet and then guitar, Frisell now calls the West Coast home and is closely associated with the Monterey Jazz Festival, which recently commissioned work from the guitarist. Frisell operates under the jazz heading, though he seems much at home with pop, country, folk, and movie music. Live, Frisell avails himself of all the pedals and loops and settings to produce a genuinely sweet, frequently brainy, and always beautiful meditation on melody.
“When I did the commission [for the Monterey Jazz Fest], they put me up in a ranch that was left to the festival from somebody’s will,” he recalled. “They left me all alone there for days, completely by myself. The Internet didn’t work up there. I got spoiled.” The product was the dreamy, intense album Big Sur.
Given the deplorable state of the contemporary music business, it was a rare occasion to stay rooted. Frisell needs to tour to survive. “Something is a little off in that world right now,” he readily admitted. “I don’t even know who’s in control anymore. Twenty years ago, everybody complained that the record companies were ripping us off. But at least you got something; at least a little trickled down.” Now, he points out, even Lady Gaga can get five billion YouTube hits and then get a check for a few thousand dollars. “It’s super Wild West out there.”
But Frisell, who will fill the Lobero this Friday night with his interpretation of John Lennon songs, is anything but cynical about music. In fact, it was a Santa Barbara musician who helped put him on this seemingly inexhaustible path. “The Beatles were the first music I ever really heard, you know?” said Frisell, who came of age during the late 1960s. “And all those bands I heard! I mean, in one year I heard Herman’s Hermits and then Jimi Hendrix. And then I heard Charles Lloyd, who was playing songs, too, but he was taking them apart and putting them together — and not chopping them up — beautifully. That’s when I decided that jazz was, in my mind, the place where anything can happen.”
New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik once wrote that people who cover the Beatles tend to play note-for-note reproductions. Frisell laughs. “That’s not what we do. These songs are basic to all of us now; they’re part of our DNA. And there’s so much in them, the chords and the melodies and the words; there’s so much.” He and his bandmates perform a kind of musical cubism. Each band member might be “singing” a different part, but then they all start “singing” the same song. “[We’re] taking them apart and turning them upside down,” he said. He likens what they do onstage to physical confrontation. “Like when you meet someone, you don’t have to fight with them. You stay there and you figure out what you have in common. That’s what I love about music,” he said. He even gets up early in the morning for it.
All We Are Saying: Bill Frisell Explores the Music of John Lennon comes to the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Friday, May 16, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 966-4946 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.