uitarist Bill Frisell, to dredge up an all-too-often used description, is a “musician’s musician.” His immense talent and approach to music has not only found him exploring many styles of music and the various nooks and crannies of genres, but also enabled him to make a living while playing with a wide variety of ensembles.
Frisell has recorded and played with artists ranging from Dave Holland, John Zorn and Elvin Jones to Jerry Douglas, Danny Barnes, Abigail Washburn and Elvis Costello. He has played Jazz, Classical, Rock and Roots music, written and performed film scores and often probed the boundaries of exploratory sounds.
Frisell is currently touring behind his When You Wish Upon A Star album, which puts a unique spin on some of the best movie soundtrack compositions from the ’60s and ’70s, including music from Once Upon A Time in the West, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather and Psycho.
On tour, Frisell combines his eclectic guitar playing with a quintet that also features violist Eyvind Kang, drummer Rudy Royston, bassist Thomas Morgan and vocalist Petra Haden.
When my interview with Frisell begins, he recognizes my 513 area code and asks if I am calling from Cincinnati.
“I have some friends there and I have played there a few times,” Frisell says. “Do you know Michael Wilson, the photographer? He is a great guy and has done a lot of my album covers.”
Frisell says he has always been a fan of movie soundtracks, especially back in the day when the music was written specifically for the featured attraction.
“I was born in 1951, and there is so much (movie music) from back then that there is no escaping it,” he says. “It is so much a part of the fabric of the way I hear music. As for most of the pieces on this album, each one is a little bit different. When you think about the music of To Kill A Mockingbird, it is fascinating, and I learned so much — where they would take a little melody, and how Elmer Bernstein develops that one little bit of music throughout the film. He would take it to different keys. I never really checked it out that carefully before. So the whole process of doing this record kept drawing me further and further in and it really seduced me.”
While there are some rather obscure compositions on the album, there are also wonderful arrangements of more well-known fare.
“Some of the music I have played before, like ‘Moon River’ and ‘When You Wish Upon A Star,’ ” Frisell says. “But I have never played (music from) To Kill a Mockingbird or The Bad and the Beautiful. The latter is really just a song, but with the whole structure of it and the way it was used in that movie, it was just blowing my mind.”
Frisell also explores music from old Westerns that often featured electric guitar front and center, such as the theme song to the TV show Bonanza and “Farewell to Cheyenne” from Once Upon a Time in the West.
“That Ennio Morricone stuff, for a guitar player, his music is awesome,” Frisell says. “Have you heard of Nash Guitars? I met Bill Nash — who makes these guitars, and I have one of his guitars — (and) I found out that his father is Dick Nash, the trombone player from Los Angeles. So Bill and I became friends, and after I did this new album I said, ‘Man, I just did this record of all of this soundtrack music. It would be so cool to meet your dad.’ I told Bill what pieces we played and he goes, ‘My dad played on more than half of these tunes.’ It was the most incredible thing because Bill set up a meeting. I went to L.A. to meet his dad and they brought along Bob Bain, who played guitar on the original ‘Moon River,’ when Audrey Hepburn sang it in (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and he is also the guy that played on the Bonanza theme.”
Bain also played the guitar parts on TV show themes for Peter Gunn, The Munsters, M.A.S.H. and Mission Impossible, and his work can be heard on Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”
Once the get-together continued to grow in Los Angeles, more famous session musicians arrived to talk with Frisell.
“Dennis Budimir also showed up, one of the (famed session group) Wrecking Crew guys, who was a huge inspiration for me,” Frisell says. “It was unreal that I got to meet these guys. They are all in their 80s, I’m guessing. And there was Gene Cipriano, who was a saxophone player (also of Wrecking Crew).
“They all played on Henry Mancini’s music and they did tons and tons of soundtracks. It is one of those things where they are so heavy and amazing musicians, yet they are completely unsung. When you see all of those movies and you look at the credits and they list the caterers and the drivers and the thousands of people working on the movie, you think, ‘But what about the guy that played the trombone solo on that song? How come they don’t put him in the credits?’ ”
One thing that Frisell appreciates about old-school movie scores is how the composers created a great melody theme and never gave up on it, reinventing it along the way. In many genres right now, there is a move to get back to “play the melody.”
“That is my motto,” Frisell says. “You just said it. I need to write that down. ‘Play the melody and don’t give up on it.’ That is really where I get everything from, and in these film pieces the melodies are just heavy and beautiful.”
BILL FRISELL performs Thursday at the Taft Theatre’s Ballroom. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.