Guitarist Bill Frisell, at work. Courtesy image by Monica Frisell.
Legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s formative years intersected with one of the United States’ greatest periods of exploration, culminating in the moon landing in July 1969. In 2014, for his 34th album – Guitar in the Space Age! – Frisell dove back into the music of those decisive years, putting his inimitable fingerprint on the postwar country, blues and rock ’n’ roll songs of legends like the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Byrds, Pete Seeger, Junior Wells, Dick Dale and Duane Eddy. He did so with longtime regular counterparts, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, and lap and pedal steel guitar maestro Greg Leisz.

Though he’s since released his 35th album, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a collection of classic film and television music like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Moon River” and the title track, Frisell is set to take the stage at the 3,750-seat Mountain Theatre in Mount Tam State Park on Sept. 17 as part of the Sound Summit, an annual fundraiser for the park. The event is headlined by Wilco, the veteran indie rock band that NPR has called the “best rock band in America” and Rolling Stone dubbed “America’s foremost rock impressionists,” with Tex-Mex rock mainstays Los Lobos and San Francisco rockers the Stone Foxes rounding out the bill. KNBR morning show hosts Murph & Mac (aka Mill Valley resident Brian Murphy and Paul McCaffrey) serve as the day’s masters of ceremonies.

Enjoy Mill Valley spoke with Frisell about the music of his youth, Guitar in the Space Age!, making music with his friends and the comparisons between the volatility of the 1960s versus the 2010s.

PictureBill Frisell. Courtesy image by Monica Frisell.

Enjoy Mill Valley: Where am I catching you?
Bill Frisell: I’m at home in Seattle. I’ve taken some time over the past six months to be at home. Two years ago, I was at a point where the travelling was getting to me. So other than a road trip of the western U.S. this summer, I’ve been at home. It wasn’t so much time off as it was time not in an airplane. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do that for. The Sound Summit gig on Mount Tam will be the end of my time at home.

EMV: Guitar in the Space Age! came out in 2014, and you’ve since released When You Wish Upon a Star. Are you excited to dive back in that material with the boys?
BF: We’ll play a lot of that music, but since we did the record, we’ve played all over the place together, and there are other songs that aren’t on the record that keep creeping into what we play. It’s this guitar music that we all grew up with. It’s almost autobiographical in a way – stuff that got me playing in the first place. Songs I’d heard on radio and either never played until now or some I’ve been playing my whole adult life. But it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve played them – it’s kind of a revelation when you sit down and try to play some of this stuff. Even if it’s songs that I did play you’re looking at it through the lens of your whole life and seeing things that you didn’t realize were even in there. The songs are different every time we play them.

EMV: When the record came out, you were quoted as saying that it was less of an exercise in nostalgia than a recommitment to keep learning. How have you maintained that commitment through five decades of playing guitar?
BF: That’s music for me. There no escape. You can never figure it out. You learn a song or a chord – whatever it is – and as soon as you think you’ve got something, it’s going to show you something else and lead you to something else. The song will tell you that you need to play this other song or some other idea or harmony. It’s a snowball effect. You have to get comfortable with the idea that in one lifetime, you’re never going to get it all. You have to get comfortable just being in the process. It’s an amazing thing just to be in. It’s also great to imagine what it was like the very first time that song was played. What did this particular song sound like the first time that anyone heard it. The first time the Beach Boys do “Surfer Girl” and thinking, ‘Wow, what that sound?”


Guitarist Bill Frisell, at right, performs music from “Guitar in the Space Age!” in 2014, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, along with lap and pedal steel guitar master Greg Leisz, far left. Courtesy image by Paul Moore.
EMV: This record sounds like one that you and Greg, Tony and Kenny had a heck of a fun time making. What is it about this particular band that you love so much?
BF: Our history together is pretty deep at this point. We’ve been playing together a long time, in a lot of different contexts. It’s just got all that stuff that you can’t explain. It’s way more than just the songs and the notes. All the time we’ve spent together. As people, they’re really like brothers to me. And that affects the music. It is in the music, in a way.

EMV: The two years since you put out Guitar in the Space Age! have been particularly fraught. Since that record draws from the era that included both the optimism-fueled space age but also the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, how does it compare to polarization of 2016 landscape?
BF: It is extremely complicated. I don’t even know how to break it down. Back then, there was this optimism but there was also this horrible darkness and fear, just as there is now. The thing I try to hold onto came from people like Pete Seeger and Sonny Rollins, and its focuses on the idea of that we’re going to get through it, and we’ll do it as individuals by just doing something good right now.There’s so much information out there now.If you go on the Internet and look at all the horrible stuff happening, it can be paralyzing. But if you can do something small to improve your part of the world. Smile at somebody. Learn to play guitar. Pete saw these good things as being contagious. We just have to be more focused on doing the best you can in the moment.

EMV: You and (Wilco guitar wizard) Nels Cline are widely regarded as two of the most innovative guitarists of your era. Are you looking forward to catching up with him?
BF: Nels is a super old friend. They’re going to be here in Seattle before I head down to the Bay Area. I’ll probably see him here. They often ask me to sit in with them, so we’ll see. The guys in that band are just some of the nicest guys on the planet. I’m really looking forward to it.

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