Bill Frisell plays the guitar with near-telepathic finesse. His quiet, astute command of the instrument recalls Obi-Wan Kenobi. When Frisell waves his hand over the fret board and says, "These aren't the notes you're looking for," you absolutely forget you were looking for notes at all. What are notes? After more than 50 years of playing guitar, Frisell recently released his 35th album, Guitar in the Space Age!, featuring instrumental interpretations of songs from the '60s—like "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Tired of Waiting for You"—that helped shape his musical consciousness. The Bainbridge Island resident spoke from the JFK International Airport in New York, shortly before boarding a flight for Colorado.
How do you know when you're going to cover a song? How does the decision hit you? How did you decide to cover Madonna's "Live to Tell"?
I was traveling in Europe and was by myself in a hotel. The Sean Penn movie At Close Range came on TV. It's intense and emotional, about a father and a son, and Sean Penn is doing his thing. I was jet-lagged watching it, and at the very end, that song came on. It really struck me.
Have you talked with Madonna about it? You probably text her all the time, right? "Sup Madge, POHF. I saw this kid on a moped lose a fight with a light pole, LSHMNRFOAIDMGDVB."
I can't imagine she's heard it. What's that abbreviation with all the letters?
Laughed So Hard My Nose Ring Fell Out and I Dropped My Glass Darth Vader Bong.
I'll have to remember that one.
Please talk about your time playing in the Ginger Baker Trio. What did his drumming bring out in your playing? Did you play differently with him?
Hopefully I play differently with everyone I play with. I'd met him briefly before—shook his hand years before that recording. When I went to do that first recording, he didn't have any idea who I was. The whole thing was set up. Someone had an idea we should play together, with bassist Charlie Haden. I walked in, and he was setting up his drums and smoking cigarettes. I said, "Hey, I'm Bill. I'm the guitar player." And he just sort of grunted at me, saying hello back. He didn't say much. Then we started playing, and after about 30 seconds, he looked up and started smiling.
Did he ever punch you in the face or anything like that?
No [laughs]. I assume you're talking about the movie Beware of Mr. Baker. It sort of plays up his violent side, but he's a really sensitive guy, actually. I don't know if the movie gets that across. His love of music is all I ever got from him. He's a total musician. We would just play. There was never any weird stuff. We'd start playing, and the music would take over. I remember seeing Cream play in, like, 1968. The idea that I would someday play with him, I couldn't believe it.
Does your mind ever wander when you play? Like, have you ever had a microscopic vision of a sperm penetrating an egg to start a human life? Or have you ever become a mosquito that lands on a fried Twinkie at a fair outside Albuquerque? You try to suck blood, but you suck the Twinkie's cream filling, and for whatever reason, the sugar makes your mosquito brain think you're Neil Patrick Harris, who's from New Mexico, believe it or not. Then the cream filling kills you.
These are great thoughts. I do think things, yes [laughs]. I don't know if I've thought of an egg and the start of life, or had the mosquito vision, specifically. But those are thoughts for me to shoot for. Albuquerque is a nice place. I bet the mosquitos are happy there.
What's going on in Colorado for you?
It's a weird trip for me. We're playing in Aspen, then Denver, which is where I grew up. We're actually going to play in my old high school's auditorium—East High—so it'll be a time warp for me. I'm kind of flipping out about it. I haven't been in there since 1969 [laughs]. There's a club I play often in Denver called Dazzle. The guy from Dazzle thought it would be cool to do the show at my old high school. So much stuff happened in that place when I was younger.
Do you know what you're going to play?
Not exactly. I'm doing a lot of my Guitar in the Space Age!—a lot of the music comes from that time, when I was growing up and going to that school. I played in a talent show there, a Wes Montgomery song that sort of changed my life. I know we'll be playing that. I think it'll be like a dream playing it again in there. I was in that auditorium playing with a band when we got the news that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Many memories are there, intense feelings from those times. I'm looking forward to it. Pretty soon after high school, I left Denver, was on the East Coast for a long time, and then eventually moved to Seattle.
When you played the talent show, did you tear it up? Did you shred?
We tried. The band I played in was called the Soul Merchants [laughs]. I'd been super fired up about music for as long as I can remember. Things were just getting going. We'd play at fraternity parties or at the homecoming dance at school. It was just at the moment where I was discovering so much. A couple years before, I started listening the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, then I found blues. Some of my classmates went on to play with Earth, Wind & Fire—Philip Bailey, the singer, and Larry Dunn, the piano player. We were mixing pop music, blues, and soul. Then I started to discover jazz. It was right at the end of high school when I first heard Miles Davis. Things seemed to be coming at me so fast. I'd hear surf music, then the Beatles, then Muddy Waters, then Jimi Hendrix. There was an explosion in my brain that formed this blueprint that opened my mind to what I'm doing now.
In your version of Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," how do you embody the meaning of the lyrics in an instrumental song? "To everything there's a season/A time to be born, a time to die..." How do you say that with a guitar?
That's one of the songs on the album that's deeply ingrained in my head. It's part of my blood. I think you said it right: I'll try to embody the song. Or show the scene of the song with a different lens. The Byrds were big for me. Pete Seeger had passed away around the time we did the album, and I was thinking about the Byrds and that song. Pete had written the song much earlier, but when the Byrds did it in the '60s, it had a huge impact on me—the sound of that band. When I play that song, I'm definitely hearing the words in my head, and I hear the resonance they had with their incredible harmonies. With Greg Leisz and Tony Scherr and the band, we've been playing together for so long we never talk about what we're going to be playing or figure it out or anything. In particular with Greg, we're really coming from the same generation and were hearing all the same things growing up. I think it gives a lot to draw from when we're playing.