Bill Frisell Interprets the Music from Classic Movies and TV on When You Wish Upon a Star

The acclaimed guitarist plays the Skirball Cultural Center February 25

In the dialogue that precedes the song “Move On” in Sunday in the Park with George, Dot asks the title character if he’s working on something new. He says he isn’t and that he don’t have anything to say, or “nothing that’s not been said.” To which Dot replies, “Said by you, though, George.” Whether this scene influences guitarist Bill Frisell with his career decisions or not, the sentiment certainly resonated with him as he tackled his new recording When You Wish Upon a Star. The project features his interpretations of classic film and television scores and songs—material that has been mined for years. On February 25, Frisell will be performing selections from the album at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Frisell, an acclaimed jazz guitarist, has (in addition to his solo work) collaborated with the likes of Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams and John Zorn. The new disc, which features such well-known music as the themes from Psycho and Bonanza and Nino Rota’s score from The Godfather, came about while putting together a series of shows in New York.

“I had this series of concerts at Lincoln Center,” Frisell remembers. “I did six things there, and I had to come up with a theme for each one. That’s where this idea seemed like a no-brainer. There’s so much music from film and television. The possibilities became overwhelming—there’s so much extraordinary music from that world. And then realizing how it was part of my growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. My imagination was formed and was impacted by a lot of it.”

As huge as the list of possible scores and songs was, Frisell found his way in. “A lot of the stuff I chose is personal to me,” he says. “It represents a time in my life. For me, that gives it more weight. First of all, that I love the music itself. Then there’s all this other stuff surrounding it, like thinking about what my memory was of going to see that film or what was happening in the world at that time. But there’s also the musicianship. You can really hear, when you listen to those original scores, actual human beings sitting in a room playing music together. They didn’t have computers then. They couldn’t really fix things. They did it. That just flips me out.”

The process of recording this album gave Frisell the chance to dig deep, even with the most familiar of songs. “I’ve probably played ‘Moon River’ thousands of times,” he says. “But every time I play it there is something in there I see that I didn’t notice, or something will happen. I’m continually inspired or surprised by things that will pop out that I didn’t see before. I never get tired of it.”

His enthusiasm for the project afforded Frisell the opportunity to meet the man who first played Henry Mancini’s classic song in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “I have a friend, Bill Nash, who builds guitars,” he says. “His father is Dick Nash, who was one of the top studio guys. I said, ‘It would be so great to meet your dad and talk to him about playing on some of these soundtracks,’ and he set it up. I also met Bob Bain, who played ‘Moon River’ in the movie with Audrey Hepburn. He told a story about running the song a couple times. It’s a little short moment in their life, but for the rest of us, it becomes something I’ve come back to many times.”

Taking the music on the road allows Frisell to play around with the songs he’s recorded.

“I feel lucky now we are doing this tour,” he says. “It’s the nature of music—you never finish. No matter what you do, you play one note, and it suggests another note. Or you play one song, and it brings to mind another song. Every single time I do a recording, I leave with, ‘I wish we could have done this or that.’ But then we get to play it live. Already we are adding different pieces that we didn’t do on the recording, or even with the pieces we did do, they are evolving in different ways. I don’t want it to be static. I’d go nuts if it were the same every time.”