Bill Frisell is one of the most imaginative, celebrated and prolific jazz guitarists of the past 30-odd years. That is, if “jazz guitarist” is an accurate tag. He’s played with such icons of the genre as McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Paul Motian, and his guitar mentor, the late Jim Hall, but is equally comfortable collaborating with Ginger Baker, Elvis Costello, Carrie Rodriguez, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and Richard Hell. His more than forty albums as a leader (beginning with 1982’s In Line) cross-pollinate jazz with folk, rock, country, Americana, electronica, with nods to Nashville, the music of John Lennon, and the films of Buster Keaton. As Dan Morgenstern wrote in Jazz Times, "After decades of trodding such a brave and singular path, maybe Frisell deserves his own genre. How about 'friz'?”
Of labels, Frisell says, “That whole thing about what’s this or what’s that – it’s just sort of an aggravation. The way music gets divided into these boxes has always been frustrating for me. I don’t think music works that way. We all have our own experiences. On this album is some of the music I was hearing growing up in the 50's and early 60's. There is so much history. Back and forth. Before and after. It's impossible to pin things down. That's the beauty. We all learn from each other. When I listen to Jimmy Bryant, I know he must have listened to Charlie Christian, and The Ventures heard Chet Atkins, and Chet Atkins listened to Johnny Smith. It's like a kaleidoscope. You look at one piece of music, and it immediately shoots out into all these directions. All these beams of light cut through whatever words are used to try to box it in.”
With his new album, Guitar In The Space Age!, at age 63, Frisell goes back to the music that first sparked his imagination. America and Russia were racing to see who would first land on the moon – hopefully before we destroyed each other. “For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated and attracted to the guitar. Seeing cowboys playing them on TV. Jimmy Dodd on the Mickey Mouse Club. Long before I ever owned one, I just loved the way they looked. I'd stare at all those cool looking Fender guitars on the album covers of The Astronauts, The Surfaris, The Ventures. This all fit right in with hot rods, surf boards, rocket ships, outer space, and a feeling of optimism about how wonderful and amazing the future was going to be. Extraordinary things were about to happen. But, there was also the dark side. Assasinations, the struggle with civil rights, the cold war, fear. Duck and cover. As a young child I spent a number of sleepless nights thinking about these things as well.”
All the talk of the virtues of transcending musical genres and the conjuring of childhood musical memories notwithstanding, producer Lee Townsend says it is “Bill’s sophisticated conception of the architecture of a song – and his nuanced interpretation and treatment of it” that is often paramount on the new album. “He is a master of the evocative phrasing of a melody, not unlike a singer, with subtle variations in inflection, nimble altering of tone and effects and the graceful shifting of octaves to create an interpretation that both honors the original and stretches the impact of his own inventive adaptation.”
Frisell says, “A few years ago I did an album of John Lennon's music, All We Are Saying. It was a revelation. That music has been a part of my life from when I first started playing, but I realized I hadn't really spent that much time actually physically playing it. When I did, it was weird.. like..’I don't even know how to play these songs!’ I think now about how much music was coming at me during that time. Pouring in. It truly was an explosion. Hearing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 and within 3 years I was listening to Wes Montgomery. That's a LOT to take in! Now, after playing for more than 50 years, I'm wanting to go back and look more closely at some of the things that made me want to play in the first place. Strengthen the foundation. “
Of his musical partners for this journey back to the space age, he explains, “I've known Kenny, Tony, and Greg for a long time now. I learn so much from them. They are my teachers. When I first heard Tony and Kenny play together, they had their own "sound". They play together like brothers. The first time I was introduced to Greg, I knew we'd be playing together...before we had played a note. Greg and I grew up during the same time. The same generation. His first electric guitar was a Fender Mustang, as was mine. Nothing needs to be said or discussed. There is understanding. He is my guitar brother. My hope is that this band plays together like a family.
I hope people don't think this is a joke or nostalgia. It first comes from loving this music and loving these guys. It's about learning and getting deeper into the music, and researching where we come from. I've never been able to buy into the idea of there being a hierarchy in music. Like...folk music is at the bottom, then blues, rock, jazz and classical at the top...or whatever. As though one music is higher or lower or more difficult than another. It’s all difficult. It's all beautiful. It's all one thing.”
Bill discusses the CD’s songs:
Pipeline is perhaps the prototypical surf instrumental – which is upbeat and happy, not to mention easy, right? But, Bill’s version of this song written and recorded by the Chantay’s, a group of 16-year-olds, expands the emotional tone of it to something more dense and shadowy . . . “This is one of the first songs I ever tried to play on the guitar...and playing it again now, I realize...It's HARD!!
Turn Turn Turn, a song that has folk-rock written all over it, is often uplifting, and this is also the case with Frisell’s version. “The Byrds were a huge inspiration for Greg and me growing up. What a sound! Like no one else. Pete Seeger passed away during the time that we were working on this album and it seemed fitting that we should play this song.”
Messin’ With The Kid brings the mid-’60s blues revival into the mix. “When I was just getting started playing the guitar, I used to hang around the Denver Folklore Center, a fantastic gathering place for musicians. One day I overheard someone say, "You've got to hear the Paul Butterfield Blues Band!” I flipped out. This was where I first heard Mike Bloomfield who became a huge influence. Next thing you know, someone said, "You should check out Chicago, The Blues Today on Vanguard. Messin with the Kid by Junior Wells and Buddy Guy was on that album. On our version, I'm using a wah wah pedal, playing the part of the voice, while Greg is playing guitar. Historically this is probably the most recent thing on the album. It was a challenge to know how far to go back into the past...or up to the present. How to reign it in. Many seeds were planted. When we play live, there will be more music, more songs, all kinds of possibilities.”
Surfer Girl and Tired Of Waiting For You were both originally vocal tunes. “Surfer Girl is a special song for me. The first record I bought was a 45 single of the Beach Boys with Little Deuce Coupe on one side and Surfer Girl on the other. The Beach Boys and the Kinks are groups with such strong, unique, and instantly recognizable "sounds"...as well as beautiful songs. Tired of Waiting has an interesting form and great lyrics that I can always remember. There is much to draw from. It's not as aggressive as some other Kinks songs such as You Really Got Me, which was one of the first songs I played after getting my Mustang in 1965.”
“So much of the music I love to play is inspired by or comes directly from, songs with lyrics, and listening to vocalists. I hear that sound in my head and reach for it. Greg is a master accompanist who has worked with so many incredible singers. He doesn't simply play "parts". He has found his own way of being completely spontaneous, in the moment, and absolutely supportive at the same time. This must have something to do with the way we have found to play with each other.”
Rebel Rouser and Rumble are essential building blocks of instrumental rock – the latter holding the distinction of being banned by some radio stations, even though it had no lyrics! “Link Wray‘s ‘Rumble’ is one of those songs where if you only hear it once in your life, that sound has such a huge effect. And it’s not like you have to go to Harvard to understand it. Duane Eddy was sort of the precursor to surf music. I was a little too young when he first came out to even know what it was, but that sound was something in the fabric of being in this country at that time. It was on the radio and in the air.
Cannonball Rag is a Merle Travis standard – typically played in the picking style named for him. “In my very limited, abbreviated version of Travis picking, I’m holding the pick instead of a thumbpick, and doing sort of a skeletal version of that pattern. I’m trying to come close to what he played, but it’s exciting when it starts to break apart. We stay within the song form, play variations on it and take the song apart, instead of being locked into a set pattern. Everyone’s heard these songs so much, I want to have respect for them without necessarily copying them – because there’s no way to top the original versions. You have to find your own way.”
Bryant’s Boogie and Reflections From The Moon come from the virtuoso country duo of guitarist Jimmy Bryant and steel guitarist Speedy West. “Years ago, I was introduced to the astonishing music of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West through my friend Chuck Helm at the Wexner Center for the Arts. This led eventually to a concert there in 2011. Greg and I along with Dennis Crouch on bass, and Don Heffington on drums attempted to play this crazy, challenging music. We called the concert Not So Fast. Jimmy Bryant was known as "The fastest guitar in the country". I am definitely NOT that, but love his and Speedy West's music and wanted to pay tribute to it. That concert was another of the seeds planted which led to the idea of doing this album.”
“The Shortest Day and Lift Off are the only original compositions on the album...functioning as interludes or segues between the other material. I'm hoping as the band develops, to introduce more of my own music into our repertoire.”
Baja comes from the Astronauts, who hailed from Colorado, the state where Bill grew up. That’s right – surf music in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado. “I remember one Astronauts album cover where they all had their blond Fender amps and blond Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars. The music and guitars of that time were all mixed in with the fantasy of cars, hot rods, outer space, and the "future". Cartoons and the hot rod designs and drawings of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and George Barris were firing up my imagination and had a huge impact. It's amazing to think the Fender Telecaster was invented around the time I was born. I can get just about anything I want out of that guitar. They got it right from the start. For this album I'm playing only one ‘tele’ style guitar built by J.W. Black with a Mastery bridge and a Bigsby tailpiece. Greg plays his old Fender Jazzmaster as well as pedal steel. Tony plays an old Hofner bass from the early 60s as well as acoustic bass. He is also an extraordinary guitarist. There was the temptation to have him play guitar on the this album as well, but we decided that he'd stick with bass. He does make a brief appearance playing rhythm guitar on Rebel Rouser. Kenny plays drums and percussion as well as vibes on a few of the songs.
Telstar was a hit by England’s Tornados, as well as America’s Ventures. “Satellites and the possibility of space travel was on everyones mind at that time. My memory of the song Telstar comes more from the Ventures, but I think it ended up being more Tornados as we got further into it. There was also a really good Hank Marvin version of it. It was common back then to hear more than one band, each doing their own version of the same song, at the same time on the radio. It’s like a super fun research project – going back and rediscovering these things.”
So what musical exploration will Mr. Frisell tackle next? “I’d definitely love to do some Charlie Christian music, other Beach Boys songs, more Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, more obscure Astronauts songs. And then there’s the Yardbirds! Wes Montgomery! There is SO much music. So many possibilities. As the band grows and develops I look forward to the exploration. Past and future. “
“When I discovered ‘jazz’ in high school, it seemed to be the place in music where anything was possible. There were no limits. My heros were (and still are) Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and so many others. They took what was around them, their experience, and transformed it in an extraordinary way. They set the standard. An example. I hope that what we're doing here might have something to do with that same spirit. “
OKeh Records Proud to Announce New Album
from World-Renowned Guitarist BILL FRISELL
GUITAR IN THE SPACE AGE! - Available October 7
Just when you think you’ve got guitarist-composer Bill Frisell all figured out, confident in your expectations, this American original shakes things up with an unexpected glimpse into those layers of consciousness which inform his rootsy, inclusive, oh so personal style of musical outreach.
With his new album, GUITAR IN THE SPACE AGE! (available October 7 on OKeh Records), Frisell goes back to the music that first sparked his imagination. “There’s something about being the age I’m at now,” reflects this iconic guitar hero. “I turned 63 this past spring, and after playing for more than 50 years, it just feels right to once again play some of the music which shaped my consciousness during my formative years, even to play some of it for the first time...and maybe get it right. GUITAR IN THE SPACE AGE! isn’t really an exercise in nostalgia, but about a re-commitment to keep learning, to firm up the foundation.
“On this album is some of the music I was hearing growing up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s,” notes Frisell. “There is so much history. Back and forth. Before and after. It's impossible to pin things down. That's the beauty. We all learn from each other. When I listen to Jimmy Bryant, I know he must have listened to Charlie Christian, and The Ventures heard Chet Atkins, and Chet Atkins listened to Johnny Smith. It's like a kaleidoscope. You look at one piece of music, and it immediately shoots out into all these directions. All these beams of light cut through whatever words are used to try to box it in.”
As a baby boomer who came of age in the 50s and ‘60s, there is an undeniably autobiographical element to the tenor and tone of the repertoire which Frisell explores on GUITAR IN THE SPACE AGE! along with long-time collaborators Greg Leisz (pedal steel & electric guitar), Tony Scherr (acoustic bass and electric bass guitar) and Kenny Wolleson (drums and vibraphone).
“I've known Kenny, Tony, and Greg for a long time now,” recalls Frisell. “I learn so much from them. They are my teachers. When I first heard Tony and Kenny play together, they had their own ‘sound.’ They play together like brothers. The first time I was introduced to Greg, I knew we'd be playing together before we had played a note. Greg and I grew up during the same time. The same generation. His first electric guitar was a Fender Mustang, as was mine. Nothing needs to be said or discussed. There is understanding. He is my guitar brother. My hope is that this band plays together like a family.
“I hope people don't think this is a joke or nostalgia. It first comes from loving this music and loving these guys. It's about learning and getting deeper into the music, and researching where we come from. I've never been able to buy into the idea of there being a hierarchy in music. Like... folk music is at the bottom, then blues, rock, jazz and classical at the top... or whatever. As though one music is higher or lower or more difficult than another. It’s all difficult. It's all beautiful. It's all one thing.”
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