When the image of Bill Frisell’s new album, When You Wish upon a Star, appeared on my computer screen, Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn score fired up in my mind. I had instant recognition of the inspiration for the film-poster-esque cover design. Yeah, that one film, the one with that scene of the guy at the end of a dark hallway who opens a door and the light streams in around him. What’s the name of that movie?! After some time searching for the title or an image, I gave up. Not there. So, why did Peter Gunn load up and the guy at the end of the hallway open the door? Because music married to moving image has the power to draw upon our vast reservoirs of associative meaning and sensual experience to create pseudo-memories and deathless, ghosts of emotion. It doesn’t matter that the scene wasn’t in the show Peter Gunn, it doesn’t matter that the image in my head doesn’t exist. What matters is that I was stimmed: suddenly flooded with sensation and memory, delight and inquiry.
When You Wish upon a Star is Frisell’s new recording project and tribute to movie and television songs and themes from the last century, with Frisell’s own contribution from the 21st. He is conscious of the impact that movie and television music has on our emotional development and how it manipulates our memories and recollections. I allowed myself one peek into this album before the show and chose the eponymous track. The song pulls up nice and slow, like a lazy sea turtle blowing bubbles off the coast of Rapa Nui, and I had pictures of Nemo swimming, happily reunited with his frantic father.
But wait! That’s the wrong movie! Where the heck is Jiminy? Disney’s version of Il Grillo Parlante is up on the beach tugging on a cerveza. And I hate to say it, but the song is getting sexy. Nemo’s dad whisks him off to bed. All my quasi religious, Disney-washed feelings for the song from my childhood are fast tracked to maturity. And there’s that mermaid from that other movie and she’s looking mighty fine and I’m feeling real confident and off I go swimming through the bubbles to give it my best shot because I’ve been wishing upon a star for this kind of opportunity all my life. Oh, man, how embarrassing.
Frisell has contributed his own compositions to the genre with songs featured in Finding Forrester and The Million Dollar Hotel and others. He will be performing with some new and some longtime collaborators at Thursday and Friday’s concerts in Portland and Eugene: singer Petra Haden, violist Evynd Kang, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Rudy Royston.
It doesn’t surprise me that Frisell is exploring this rich, psych-pop territory. His legacy is a tireless fealty to diversity, exploration, collaboration, and growth. From early on, after sitting in for Pat Metheny on a Paul Motian recording, Frisell has been a sideman’s sideman. For years he was the famous ECM record label’s house guitarist and worked on many successful albums including Jan Garbarek’s Paths and Prints from 1981. After his successful debut solo release, In Line, Frisell kept working with others—John Zorn, Kermit Driscoll, Joey Baron, Hank Roberts—leading, supporting, accompanying, championing their work and developing his own ground- and rule-breaking style in New York in the 1980s and Seattle in the ’90s. His oeuvre embraces many styles: free improv, blues, folk, noise, chamber jazz, country. His work with Elvis Costello (The Sweetest Punch) and Vic Chesnutt (Ghetto Bells) are prime examples of his ability to parallel and feed some of the best work of his artist collaborators.
When I saw him at the Shedd with his chamber group 858 Quartet (Hank Roberts, cello; Eyvind Kang, viola; Jennie Scheinman, violin), I realized that Frisell doesn’t just keep his thumb on the heartbeat of American art and pop music developments — he influences those developments, shapes those genres. Here in Oregon, to give one stellar example, Frisell’s jazz and chamber jazz (like the work he created with the 858 Quartet and with Kenny Wheeler) has influenced Portland composer, trumpeter Douglas Detrick. Detrick’s AnyWhen Ensemble crafts similar materials with subtlety, sensitivity, and depth.
Frisell’s current film music project reflects the revitalization of that genre in such projects from the last few decades as John Zorn’s The Big Gundown, Philip Glass’s prolific film scoring, Neal Young’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Frisell’s own work accompanying the silent films of Buster Keaton. And, more recently, throughout the country, and in the Northwest specifically, there’s been a resurgence in interest in classic silent films and the performance of live music to accompany them: Eye of Newt in Vancouver, BC; Retake Productions in Portland; the work of the IMMI Festival and Brian McWhorter and the After Quartet in Eugene, and more.
“I just try to get as deep into the music as I can.” That’s Frisell’s explanation of his approach to his genre projects. The Star set list moves from southern drama to spy thriller to Hitchcock to Disney to goofy cartoon to gangsters and beyond with a heavy dose of westerns both big budget and boob-tube productions. The Aladdin and Shedd are going to be swimming in memories, recollections, and associations—and every one of them will be unique. Such is the power of moving image music. I can’t think of a more sure-fire choice for a successful date than this concert. Afterward, we can all say, “Thanks for the memories, Bill.”
Bill Frisell performs at the Shedd Institute in Eugene on Thursday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 pm and at the Aladdin Theater in Portland on Friday, Nov. 4 at 8 pm (sponsored by PDX Jazz). Follow these links for ticket information: Shedd Institute show in Eugene and Aladdin show in Portland.
Daniel Heila writes music, manipulates video, plays his flute, and loves words in Eugene, Oregon.
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