Channeling John

Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell tackles the mighty task of covering the famous Beatle

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

Guitarists have this way of talking about their new guitars like proud parents. So after apologizing briefly to Bill Frisell a few weeks ago for intruding on his pre- London flight time with a phone interview — the publicist told us to call at that time, and that’s where he happened to be — we thought we’d ask him about his new I35 LC, a ruddy, sunburst-finish hollow body electric guitar built by Collings that he added to his collection not long ago. Frisell’s daughter Monica had posted a few shots of him with it on her blog a few weeks earlier.


“Oh yeah, thanks,” he beamed, a canned lady voice behind him announcing a boarding. “It’s sort of modeled after a Gibson 335. It’s just a super good guitar, like you went through a hundred Gibsons and just found the right one. Collings just makes such good guitars, every little detail, they’re sweated out. It’s just a really good guitar; I’m very happy with it.”

Frisell’s recent project, recorded early last summer, is an album of John Lennon covers entitled All We Are Saying…, finding the guitarist gently folding 16 solo Lennon and Beatles tunes into his spare instrumental ensemble, backed by violinist Jenny Scheinman, pedal steel player Greg Leisz, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr.

For many years now, Frisell has made high art of murmur, teasing and coaxing jazz standards and weather-hewn Americana not so much as a master interpreter by way of statement, but more often as a pilgrim by way of inquiry. “Across the Universe” and “In My Life” both commence with barely audible harmonic notes, leading the band into gently unrav eling renditions, languid and almost mournful, while “Revolution” sways and kicks a little like a stickyfloored roadhouse number near last call, a few pinched and slurred notes in the chorus-verse cadences.

Frisell fans can’t resist anticipating their way through his reading of these songs, compelled to guess which passages he and this band choose to underline and which they’ll choose to voice parenthetically. But it’s ample testament to both the richness of the canon and Frisell’s unrelentingly curious mind that he can summon such depth and a relaxed spontaneity to such a familiar catalog, unafraid to share his own sense of exploration through songs that everybody knows by heart.

Even Frisell himself admitted to being beguiled by the project.

“My standard line is that I’ve known this stuff my whole life,” he says, “but in terms of actually playing them. I mean, I played a few of those songs in junior high school, in Denver. But to get inside and really play them, it’s really exciting for me. And actually, at the time when we come to Boulder, it’ll be sort of right in the midst of really taking this thing on the road. For me, that’s when the music really starts coming to life.”

“When it came to recording, there was just this emotional thing flying around the room, with everyone there having their own relationship with the pieces.”

It’s a catalog, we suggested, that kind of belongs to all of us now, part of our cultural DNA.

“Yeah, the amazing thing is that, even little kids today all know this music. It’s not a nostalgia thing at all, like something that just happened long ago.”

But seriously, how does someone go into a studio — and especially someone like Frisell, who has devoted a considerable portion of his recorded career to reconstructing standards — and arrange a Beatles song?

“You know, it was with people that I’ve played with for years and years, so … there weren’t any arrangements. There wasn’t even much talk about anything. I feel really good about that; we were using the language we use when we play anything. … We weren’t trying to recreate what was there, but I didn’t re-harmonize or re-arrange anything.”

Frisell says that bringing this music to Boulder will be a little bit of a milestone for him, squaring a widely arced circle.

“Y’know, I grew up in Denver, and that’s where I heard all this music for the first time. So, there’s something super special about playing it in Colorado. Already I’ve gotten some messages from friends I went to school with about the show. It’s actually going to be kind of a heavy thing for me.”