Guitarist Bill Frisell plays it cool and lets the music guide him

Guitarist Bill Frisell will perform their tribute to Lennon’s music Sept. 7 at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.
Guitarist Bill Frisell will perform their tribute to Lennon’s music Sept. 7 at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.
Photo by Bill Frisell
| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 7:49 p.m.

Whether it is looking at the music of John Lennon or performing his own musical study of Big Sur, guitarist Bill Frisell says he really does not “have any kind of plan.”

It is the music and its direction that guide him, he says.

“I don't have any kind of long-term goal other than to stay healthy enough to keep doing this,” he says.

Frisell and a band with two players who are keys to his current creative stretch will perform their tribute to Lennon's music Sept. 7 at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.

The band will included violinist Jenny Scheinman and lap-steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who were part of this look at the music of the late Beatle when it was born about six years ago. They will be joined by drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Tony Scherr.

Leisz and Scheinman also are featured on the recent “Big Sur” album. They were with Frisell on tour in Europe in 2007 when a promoter suggested they do a concert of music by Lennon.

“We started playing it and it felt really cool, really good,” he says. “When I began to think about it, I realized how immersed I always had been in Lennon's music.”

He explains how when the Beatles first became popular, he was in the early days of studying the guitar and playing some of the surf music that was then popular. Lennon and the Beatles turned him to their direction and their music and style stayed in his head — even if it was dominated by jazz classics.

“I spent all that time working on the music of (Thelonious) Monk and (Charlie) Parker,” he says. “I never saw Lennon's stuff as having the richness it does.”

When he and Leisz and Scheinman started playing Lennon's music on that European tour, they began to see how good the music is.

“We didn't reharmonize it or anything,” he says. “We just played it with all of the deepness that is ingrained in it.”

But the jazz-folk style that emerges on the Lennon album, “All We Are Saying,” gave the music a distinct and individual sound. There is a mellow, sometimes Appalachian tone to the music, but yet it is filled with current phrasing and rhythms.

Frisell, 62, has worked with a wide group of performers, from Elvis Costello and Rickie Lee Jones to jazz explorers Paul Motian and Julius Hemphill. Born in Baltimore, he grew up in Colorado and attended the University of Northern Colorado and the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He was quickly signed to the forward-looking ECM records, where his varied approach to music grew.

Even his appearances here have taken different forms. He once played at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, North Side, in a three-guitar setting with Earl Klugh and Russell Malone. He also appeared at the Rex Theater, South Side, in a concert — also with Leisz and Scheinman — that in some iterations featured work of a North Carolina photographer.

As with his choice of what music to play, he says he really does not plan on what material to feature. Concert promoters know what the musical possibilities are and request what seems the best for them, he says.

“I must be a nightmare for a booking agent,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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