Bill Frisell talks John Lennon, Ron Carter … and Madonna?: Gimme Five

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Bill Frisell joins us to sort through the towering emotions surrounding John Lennon’s music, as he sought to discover new sounds in familiar places on 2011’s All We Are Saying. We also go inside his landmark recording sessions with childhood heroes Ron Carter and Paul Motian – and find out how a late-night movie in an Oslo hotel room sparked one of Frisell’s more interesting cover tunes …

“BEAUTIFUL BOY” (ALL WE ARE SAYING, 2011): The song, written for John Lennon’s son Sean, took on a particular poignancy when Lennon was murdered just weeks after its release on 1980’s Double Fantasy. The project would spawn a trio of Top 10 hits on the way to earning a Grammy as album of the year in 1981. Separating the music from the myth, though, has been ever more difficult in the ensuing years. Not here, as Bill Frisell adroitly balances the song’s original mixture of wit and sentiment. He said a photo of Lennon with Sean was a catalyst.

BILL FRISELL: There is so much attached to this music, in so many ways. With all of those songs, there was more to it than just the song. We all probably have some association with where we first heard the music, or thinking about him or his life. I never met him, so it is sort of a mythical thing — larger than life. I know he’s just a person, but then he affected so many people so all of that is connected with it. There’s a photo, I don’t know if it’s famous, where it shows John in the studio with Sean (during the recording of Double Fantasy). I had a bunch of books and stuff in the studio and we had that photo out when we did this song. That photo says a lot about what the song means for me. I got a huge amount of emotion from it — very powerful. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was important. Each person in the band would have their own private personal connection to the song, or else there would also be some sort of universal outside meaning that you’re trying to get across. It wasn’t calculated in that way; it just sort of happened naturally. There was so much strong stuff floating around with all of the pieces of music. With “Beautiful Boy,” I was hoping we could get some feeling from what I was seeing in that picture.

“LIVE TO TELL” (HAVE A LITTLE FAITH, 1992): Bill Frisell tackled a range of American classical and popular music on his fourth release for the Elektra Nonesuch label, appearing with Don Byron (on clarinet and bass clarinet), accordionist Guy Klucevsek, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron. Of Frisell’s many interesting musical choices, both on Have a Little Faith and across his career, few are more memorable than his layered, almost psychedelic version of this Madonna song. The charttopping “Live to Tell” was written for the 1986 film “At Close Range,” starring then-husband Sean Penn and Christopher Walken.

BILL FRISELL: Sometimes, there are songs that have been with me my whole life — something my mother sang, or some song I just want to play because I know it so well. Then there are some that just hit me suddenly. I was travelling, like I’m always doing, and I was in a hotel in Oslo. I had traveled to Norway from the States, so I was totally jetlagged. I got to the hotel, all wiped out, and turned on the TV — and there’s this movie and it’s Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. Real intense. I’m watching it and there’s all this really emotional, heavy stuff going on. At the end, when the credits come up, “Live to Tell” comes on. This was just killer, an amazing song. Then I said: “My, I’ve got to play that song.” It was one of those that just hit me.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In Part 1 of this Something Else! Sitdown, Bill Frisell discusses his Lennon tribute album, signature career moments and how what he can’t play helped shape his sound.]

“MONROE” (BILL FRISELL, RON CARTER, PAUL MOTIAN, 2006): Frisell brought together two of jazz music’s more important voices for a rare collaboration. The guitarist’s 19th release, as much as any, seemed to answer a wrong-headed, yet oft-quoted criticism of his work — that it’s more about effects than vision. Instead, the record was a wonder of fluidity and invention, straight ahead but free of cliché. The record not only got Ron Carter and Paul Motian reacquainted after decades apart, but sparked an on-going trio project.

BILL FRISELL: That was an incredible experience. Ron, I can’t even tell you what an impact he’s had on my life. Toward the end of high school, when I first became aware of jazz music, almost immediately there was Ron Carter. I didn’t even know it, at the beginning. The first real jazz I heard a Wes Montgomery record; that sort of opened the door to all of this music. I don’t think I even knew Ron Carter was on it at the time. It led to a Miles Davis record, and to a Sam Rivers record and to a Kenny Burrell record. It kept going and then I said: “Wait a minute — Ron Carter is on all of these records!” Now, after more than 40 years of listening to him, to have the chance to play with him? I couldn’t even believe it. Paul also was one of the first guys I listened to in high school. The idea with that record was I had a long relationship with Paul and they had played just a tiny bit together in the 1960s. I thought I’ve got to get Paul and Ron together — that was really a dream come true. We did that record so fast, like in a day and half. That was the first time they had played in so long. Since then, we’ve played a week at the Blue Note, I guess it’s been three times. That’s where the music really took off. The record was the very first evidence of our meeting. Since then, it’s been really coming together.

“OVER THE RAINBOW” (Soundtrack to FINDING FORRESTER, 2000): Bill Frisell’s piece, included on the soundtrack for a Gus Van Sant-directed film starring Sean Connery about a reclusive poet and his youthful protégé, begins as an almost unrecognizably reimagined piece. It’s a great example of Frisell’s ability to pull something out that is central but somehow as yet unheard in well-remembered standards — heard again on the new album with a brilliantly executed take on “Nowhere Man.”

BILL FRISELL: The only way that can happen is if it’s a song I’ve been playing and known my whole life. Both of those songs have been floating around in my mind, and so it’s almost like you are dreaming or something. You get to this state of playing it where the song is there, but you are moving all around it and through it. I think the only way that happens is with songs that I know really, really well. It’s hard to do an abstract painting if you don’t know what it is first. You can’t be abstract with it. You have to really know the original thing first, and then it’s easy to just let it be there — and you sort of float around it.

“GIVE ME A HOLLER” (NASHVILLE, 1997): Bill Frisell surrounded himself with some of roots music’s most distinctive and talented sidemen for this Americana-stoked project, among them Viktor Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Ron Block and Adam Steffey. The result was this stirring confluence of country music and jazz, a sound as original as it was pictorial. Frisell says he came to the music not by way of bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe, but through the acoustic explorations of mainstream rockers like the Fab Four and Bob Dylan.

BILL FRISELL: That stuff had been around all along, going back to the Beatles and all of the music that I first started listening to — the Rolling Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Bob Dylan. Country music was in all of that stuff. Maybe I didn’t know what it was when I was first hearing it, but it was there. Of course, back in the 1960s, it was more common to hear Roger Miller or Tennessee Ernie Ford or Patsy Cline on the radio right in amongst Dean Martin and rock music. It wasn’t so split up, so I didn’t think in those terms back then. It’s only been later, over the last few years, that I’ve spent more time going back and trying to figure out where I’m coming from. (Laughs.)

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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