Guitarist Bill Frisell looks back at the ‘Space Age’
If You Go …
What: Bill Frisell, “Guitar in the Space Age!”
Where: Aspen District Theatre
When: Tuesday, Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has been reminiscing about his childhood in Colorado recently. The roots of his renowned genre-spanning career were in Denver in the early 1960s, where a young Frisell discovered surf music and first picked up a guitar. His most recent album – titled “Guitar in the Space Age!” – returns Frisell to the foundation of his musical life and the songs that shaped him.
“I’m looking at the music that got me really fired up about music in the first place, but also realizing I’ve never really played it,” Frisell said in a recent phone interview.
The record includes Frisell’s inspired instrumental interpretations of songs like the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You,” along with surf classics like the Chantays’ “Pipeline” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” which was the first record Frisell ever bought.
The album also includes Frisell’s take on the Boulder-based surf rock band the Astronauts’ 1963 hit “Baja.” It was a time when a band from a landlocked state might make surf music, and an equally land-locked kid, like Frisell, might obsess about surfing based on that music.
“I had never even seen the ocean,” Frisell said with a laugh.
But the album is less about nostalgia for the 63-year-old Frisell, he said, than about looking at what shaped him and America in the early 1960s.
Frisell, who will play the Aspen District Theatre on Tuesday, recalled watching “The Mickey Mouse Club,” and seeing the Mouseketeer, Jimmy, on guitar, which inspired him to cut a guitar out of cardboard and attach rubber bands to it, so he could play along. By age 10, when he was listening to the songs he’s playing now, he was daydreaming – like most kids of the era – about surfing, music and the space race. The album and the current show aims to capture that spirit.
“I’m talking about 1960, 1961 when I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a hot rod racer or an astronaut,” he recalled. “People were thinking about rocket ships and going into outer space, and guitars and surfing were just kind of mixed into that.”
Since the new album’s release, in October, Frisell and his band have added more songs from the era to their live sets and – as is usually the case with this creatively tireless musician – his interpretations have transformed.
“The music, since we did the record, has evolved,” Frisell said. “It keeps going. We play a lot of those same tunes, but we keep adding stuff. When we did the record it was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is just the beginning of the possibilities for this music.’”
During the Colorado leg of his tour, looking back on his early influences is edging toward the surreal. After Tuesday’s Aspen show, Frisell and his band will play a gig in Denver in the auditorium of East High School, from which Frisell graduated in 1969. In that room, Frisell recalled, he attempted to play Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin’ on Sunset” in a school talent show. He remembered performing with the school concert band there in April 1968, when the principal interrupted the show to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King.
“Being in that school at that time really informed the way I still think now,” he said, “that there is this possibility that we can get it together somehow.”
Like many baby boomers, Frisell’s listening habits went from surf music to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. He moved to the east coast after high school and immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, launching his long, eclectic career in music. Now, he’s taking all he’s learned over the years and applying it to the songs that first called him to play.
“It’s like looking through a lens of all that experience and taking that material and seeing what happens with it,” he said. “I’m not really trying to get back to anything, I’m playing it for the first time in a weird way.”
Growing up, Frisell recalled, he and his family would visit Aspen in the 1950s and ‘60s. As he’s ascended the ranks of the jazz world, he’s played here frequently – most recently performing his score to the film “The Great Flood” during a screening at the Aspen Music Festival this past summer.
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