The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
The new album The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (429/Paris) is essentially a radio drama based word-for-word on Hunter S. Thompsonâ€™s legendary article about the 1970 horse race for Scanlanâ€™s Monthly. The actor Tim Robbins captures Thompsonâ€™s burst-and-pause way of talking; Dr. John plays a boozy track hustler; singer Annie Ross plays a hotel clerk; and illustrator Ralph Steadman plays himself.
The background music, though, comes from Bill Frisell. The opening theme has the soured grandeur of faded Southern aristocracy, as if Stephen Foster had been soaked in Benzedrine and bourbonâ€”the instrumental equivalent of Thompsonâ€™s prose. The music resembles Frisellâ€™s recent writing for his 858 Quartet of violinist Jenny Scheinman, cellist Hank Roberts and violist Eyvind Kang (who are joined here by multireedist Doug Weiselman, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, trumpeter Ron Miles and drummer Kenny Wollesen), but it takes a few minutes to understand why the arrangement seems so odd. Then it hits you: Thereâ€™s no guitar.
That was producer Hal Willnerâ€™s idea. â€œIâ€™ve worked with Bill for so many years on so many projectsâ€”from the Nino Rota album to the Mingus album, from Marianne Faithfull to his own recordâ€”that each time I like to give him a new challenge,â€ Willner says. â€œSo this time I said, â€˜What if you donâ€™t play at all? Just be the composer.â€™ He said, â€˜No one has ever asked that of me before.â€™ He was so happy.â€
â€œThere are these few people in my life who create an atmosphere that allows me to do interesting things,â€ says Frisell, 61. â€œHalâ€™s one of those people. He creates these opportunities and invites me into them. He doesnâ€™t tell me what to do, so I have to figure it out. Itâ€™s my music, but it wouldnâ€™t be happening if not for him. What intrigued me about the Kentucky Derby project was he asked me to write the music and conduct it without playing guitar.â€
To compose the music, Frisell immersed himself in the prose. He had a recording of Robbins reading Thompsonâ€™s parts. â€œIt was weird how much he sounded like Hunter,â€ Frisell says. The guitarist reread the original story and much of Thompsonâ€™s other writing, and even watched some documentary films about the writer, â€œjust to get him going in my mind, just to feel him as a person.â€
â€œAfter all that,â€ he continues, â€œthereâ€™s a point when I start writing music, when itâ€™s just me talking to the music. Itâ€™s all I can think about. I canâ€™t force the music; whenever I have some strong pre-conceived idea or Iâ€™m forced into some corner, it doesnâ€™t come out. So I try to surround myself with the person and let the music come out.â€
The Kentucky Derby recording went so well that Willner asked Frisell to do something similar for the Tune-In Music Festivalâ€™s tribute to Philip Glass in February. Willner and Frisell, who had helped Allen Ginsberg record his 1990 album, The Lion for Real, created a live version of Ginsbergâ€™s epic poem â€œKaddishâ€ at Manhattanâ€™s Armory. Once again, Frisell composed and conducted the music without playing guitar. â€œIt was stepping out of my comfort zone again,â€ he says. â€œMy guitarâ€™s been with me my whole life, like itâ€™s part of my clothes. When I have my guitar, thereâ€™s a power I have in the music. The next step for me was to write music where the guitar doesnâ€™t have to be there, where everything can be said with the music. Donâ€™t get me wrongâ€”thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™ll stop wanting to play my guitar, but it was the next step in gaining more confidence in what my music might be, being stronger in communicating without my instrument.â€
There is no lack of opportunities to hear Frisell playing his guitar. He released two albums under his own name for the Savoy Jazz label in 2011â€”his reworking of John Lennon songs on All We Are Sayingâ€¦ and his brilliant original compositions (often built around variations on Curtis Mayfieldâ€™s â€œPeople Get Readyâ€) on Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartetâ€”and he continues to tour the Lennon project in 2012. This year he anchors the three best tracks, including two revelatory Bob Dylan covers, on Bonnie Raittâ€™s new album, Slipstream. Later this year he will appear on a Stevie Nicks tribute album, plus projects by longtime collaborators Ron Miles and Joey Baron.
The guitarist is also a member of the band Floratone, which this past spring releasedFloratone II. This unusual quartet consists of two musicians, Frisell and rock session drummer Matt Chamberlain, and two producers, Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine. The two players improvise at length, then turn the tracks over to the knob-twisters for editing and manipulation. The producers eventually bring in other musicians to add overdubs. Itâ€™s not unlike Frisellâ€™s 2004 album, Unspeakable, where Willner the producer took the guitaristâ€™s tracks, added samples from NBC-TVâ€™s vinyl-record library and massaged the results into an integrated work. â€œWhen Iâ€™m doing my own projects, I have to sweat about every little thing,â€ Frisell says, â€œbut with Floratone, I get to play really open and free. Itâ€™s really about Matt and me playing. It starts out with us just playing for hours; we can do whatever we want. Then all the worrying and figuring out goes to Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine. Itâ€™s a very studio-intensive thing, a polar opposite of what most of my records are.â€
In April Frisell was announced as one of the first 21 Doris Duke Artists (along with fellow jazz musicians Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, John Hollenbeck and Nicole Mitchell). Each artist gets a multi-year, unrestricted grant of at least $225,000 to further his or her artistic development. For Frisell itâ€™s a chance to work more on composition. He had already been performing the live music for experimental director Bill Morrisonâ€™s film The Great Flood at different venues, and he has been commissioned to write new music for the 858 Quartet (plus drummer Rudy Royston) for Septemberâ€™s Monterey Jazz Festival. And he is working on new music for Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet. â€œIf I think about it,â€ Frisell admits, â€œI sometimes I get freaked out by all these things Iâ€™m doing. Itâ€™s crazy, but I feel so lucky that I get to do all this stuff. Doing these projects with Hal always brings me closer to whatever the subject is. Just getting to hang out with Allen Ginsberg, listening to his voice, was incredible. Iâ€™ve always been a fan of Hunter Thompson; I read his stuff years ago when it first came out, but doing this project brought me back into it in a different way.â€
â€œBillâ€™s one of these guys who found his own voice, his own touch on the guitar,â€ Willner insists. â€œEven to this day, you hear one note and you know who it is. And to do that on a guitar or piano is incredible.â€