Guitarist Bill Frisell Explores Film and TV Music on a New Album

On Bill Frisell’s last album, 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age, the guitarist delved into songs from the '50s and '60s that initially got him interested in playing guitar as a kid growing up in Denver. On brand-new disc When You Wish Upon a Star, Frisell, who’s been living in Seattle for nearly three decades, explores music from films and television that have had a lasting impression on him.

Frisell, who will be at the Oriental Theater on Wednesday, says that every song on When You Wish Upon a Star, which includes compositions by Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone and others, conjures strong memories. Many times the memory conjured had to do with something outside the film itself, as when Frisell first got his driver’s license and he actually had a date, which he says was a very rare thing at the time, and he drove his parents’ car to the Paramount Theatre to see a James Bond film. Sure enough, Frisell, along with singer Petra Haden, bassist Thomas Morgan, violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston, interpret “You Only Live Twice” (from the 1967 James Bond film of the same name).

The new album opens with two compositions from the 1962 film based on the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which Frisell says he didn’t see until a few years after it was released in the midst of the civil-rights movement.

“I just have such a vivid memory of driving with my family up to Boulder,” he says. “And I’m probably fourteen or fifteen years old, which is also right around the time I’m starting to play the guitar. All this stuff that’s going on, and not knowing what that movie was about or anything. All I knew is that we were going to see this movie. I remember the drive up there, and then the movie put such a spell on me. It was really intense.

“Years go by," he continues, "and I became more aware of how the music was such a part of — you can’t separate it from the atmosphere that the movie created and how that all connects to the message in it. There’s so much in those melodies aside from just the notes. The memory of the movie and the memory of what was happening around at that time. It gives you a lot to draw from.”

Frisell says that when he first learned some of the songs that appear on When You Wish Upon a Star, he didn't necessarily connect the compositions with films, like “The Shadow of Your Smile” (from the 1965 film The Sandpiper). This was one of the first songs that he learned from Dale Bruning, with whom he began studying as a senior at East High School in 1969.

“I don’t think I even knew it was from a movie or anything,” Frisell says of the song. “I heard so many versions — Bill Evans, Eddie Harris — jazz versions. And then I would I play it on gigs. I think it was years and years later that I realized it was from a movie.”

Or Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River,” which Frisell says he’d seen guys sing on television a long time before he saw actually saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Last November, Frisell got to meet Bob Bain, who played guitar on “Moon River” as well on the theme from the TV show Bonanza, which Frisell also covers.

“I got to go to this meeting with all these guys and got to hear this story from Bob Bain about how he was with Henry Mancini and rehearsing with Audrey,” Frisell recalls. “It looks like she’s actually playing the guitar, but it’s actually Bob.”

That meeting, set up by Nash Guitars owner Bill Nash, included Nash’s father, Dick, who played on several Mancini soundtracks, as well as other Los Angeles studio musicians who played on numerous films and TV shows and influenced Frisell, including Tim May, Phil Teele, Gene “Cip” Cipriano, Mitch Holder and Dennis Budimir. Frisell notes that Budimir “was a huge inspiration to me that Dale turned me on to in the early '70s. I thought he disappeared, but he actually became one of those Wrecking Crew guys. I couldn’t even believe I was meeting this guy.”

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon