When listening to guitarist Bill Frisell's prolific body of work, it isn't obvious that John Lennon's music is so influential. Like many of us, Lennon and the Beatles' music is just a part of his blood. And with that comes a warm familiarity anytime you hear one of those timeless melodies. You hear plenty of that on All We Are Saying -- Frisell's latest record of Lennon tunes, but what is most surprising is that he's saying something fresh by doing nothing more than playing what's already there. Frisell states that this is the perfect kind of music from its structure to its undeniable humanness, and the only thing they did differently was play it instrumentally. His approach might sound rudimentary, but it works well.
You hear Frisell's group become lost in Lennon's music. His songwriting taps into the universal themes of beauty and turmoil: youth and aging, war and peace, love and loss. And these musicians -- Jenny Scheinman (violin), Kenny Wollesen (drums), Tony Scherr (bass) and Greg Leisz (lap steel) -- shed it out on this record passionately. They express their relationship and connection with this music. And they powerfully project their personalities on to it. The simplicity of their approach is raw and unencumbered, and at times incredibly delicate. And Bill, at sixty, is still learning from this music that changed his world when he was a kid and in a lot of ways inspired his life's work as a musician. It's fascinating to hear Frisell talk about how Lennon provides an endless well that he can keep going back to for inspiration and a new perspective. Similarly, music is the conduit through which he learns about the world.
After speaking about Lennon we shifted gears and talked about his latest score for the film The Great Flood. The film depicts the devastation of the 1927 Mississippi River flood that led thousands to be displaced, causing not only a migration of people, but of sound. The roots music from the Delta moved up north and forever changed American music. When filmmaker Bill Morrison approached Frisell about doing the score, he admittedly had never done much research on the flood and its impact on music and society. He spoke passionately about the learning experience and how it was a deliberate process for him and the members of his group. At the time of our conversation it was just performed for the first time weeks earlier. He made it clear that this is also something he's going to continue to learn from the more they play it.
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Mike McKinley: It's a beautiful Saturday morning here. We should talk about John Lennon…
Bill Frisell: Sure!
Or we can talk about Dick Cheney, it's entirely up to you…
Well, I think I'll take John Lennon. [laughs]
Good choice. All We Are Saying is the new record of John's songs and it's really beautiful stuff. This music has been with you a long time -- it's a part of your blood. It has a profound longevity; the fact that you've connected with is so deeply as a kid and you're still connecting with it and learning from it.
Yeah, definitely. The focus of my life is music, and I notice there's so much that I can keep going back to and revisiting. Every couple of years, I can go back and revisit something I heard or something I tried to learn… and it just never stops. It's like peeling away the layers of an onion or something, where each time I go back, there's something more revealed somehow. With this project, a lot of this music came to me from this explosion of energy I had as a kid, but then there's so much of John Lennon's music that I haven't even heard yet. It's like I could spend the rest of my life just playing music related to this -- it just never ends.
Is there anything specific that you can recall that you've learn from this music as you've grown? I was just talking about this experience I had with a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid -- this empowering, inspiring moment. And then twenty years later, I hear the same song and have a different experience, but just as powerful. I'm a completely different person, with all these different life experiences. And it's telling me something new.
Yeah, that happens. I'm not sure I could pinpoint it, but you take a song like "In My Life," which I heard for the first time when I was fourteen years old, now that I'm sixty it certainly means something different [laughter]. It resonates with the different experiences I've had over time. That's really the amazing part of this is that it has remained relevant over that long span of time. There's a depth to the words, and the melodies… the melodies. I mean we're just playing this as instrumental music. To me, these are just gems of perfect forms and structure and everything you want in music. I didn't try to change what he did -- I didn't try re-harmonizing anything or try to make it hipper or cooler or make sound more modern. We just played what was there… there's nothing really to do to it: we just played it [laughs].
And then with the words, as we're playing them instrumentally, everyone in the band has their own relationship with the song and whatever the words mean. That gives us more power to draw from while we're playing, you know? It's just something like…
Right, you can hear everyone get into that deep space in the melody and really feel the melody.
Yeah, that's all we really did was play that.
Did anything surprise you about how the musicians you play with (Tony, Jenny, Kenny and Greg) approach this music? Or their relationship with it?
Hmm… I don't know if surprised is the right way to say it. Part of the reason I choose this group is because we've played so much together -- more than ten years I've been playing with these guys. So in a way, I wasn't surprised because we have this language where we don't even have to talk about anything or decide anything. We just play. There's no "you do this" and "you do that" sort of discussion, we just play. There's constant back and forth conversation that happens when we play together. It's not something that has to be figured out beforehand, it just comes from playing years and years together. Actually, it's been like that since the beginning. But that was part of the idea… I didn't want to have to organize this or preconceive what was going to happen. It was weird in that I felt like I didn't really prepare for this like I normally would. If it was my music, I would be writing it right up until the last minute, trying to imagine what would happen with it or preparing for it in a much different way. For this, the music has been there all along, so we just went in, and because I knew these people so well, we just did it. It's just a document of us playing the music on that day or days.