The new album The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (429/Paris) is essentially a radio drama based word-for-word on Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary article about the 1970 horse race for Scanlan’s Monthly. The actor Tim Robbins captures Thompson’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 bourbon—the instrumental equivalent of Thompson’s prose. The music resembles Frisell’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: There’s no guitar.
That was producer Hal Willner’s idea. “I’ve worked with Bill for so many years on so many projects—from the Nino Rota album to the Mingus album, from Marianne Faithfull to his own record—that each time I like to give him a new challenge,” Willner says. “So this time I said, ‘What if you don’t play at all? Just be the composer.’ He said, ‘No one has ever asked that of me before.’ He was so happy.”
“There are these few people in my life who create an atmosphere that allows me to do interesting things,” says Frisell, 61. “Hal’s one of those people. He creates these opportunities and invites me into them. He doesn’t tell me what to do, so I have to figure it out. It’s my music, but it wouldn’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.”
To compose the music, Frisell immersed himself in the prose. He had a recording of Robbins reading Thompson’s parts. “It was weird how much he sounded like Hunter,” Frisell says. The guitarist reread the original story and much of Thompson’s other writing, and even watched some documentary films about the writer, “just to get him going in my mind, just to feel him as a person.”
“After all that,” he continues, “there’s a point when I start writing music, when it’s just me talking to the music. It’s all I can think about. I can’t force the music; whenever I have some strong pre-conceived idea or I’m forced into some corner, it doesn’t come out. So I try to surround myself with the person and let the music come out.”
The Kentucky Derby recording went so well that Willner asked Frisell to do something similar for the Tune-In Music Festival’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 Ginsberg’s epic poem “Kaddish” at Manhattan’s Armory. Once again, Frisell composed and conducted the music without playing guitar. “It was stepping out of my comfort zone again,” he says. “My guitar’s been with me my whole life, like it’s part of my clothes. When I have my guitar, there’s a power I have in the music. The next step for me was to write music where the guitar doesn’t have to be there, where everything can be said with the music. Don’t get me wrong—there’s no way I’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.”
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 2011—his reworking of John Lennon songs on All We Are Saying… and his brilliant original compositions (often built around variations on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”) on Sign of Life: Music for 858 Quartet—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 Raitt’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 released Floratone 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. It’s not unlike Frisell’s 2004 album, Unspeakable, where Willner the producer took the guitarist’s tracks, added samples from NBC-TV’s vinyl-record library and massaged the results into an integrated work. “When I’m doing my own projects, I have to sweat about every little thing,” Frisell says, “but with Floratone, I get to play really open and free. It’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. It’s a very studio-intensive thing, a polar opposite of what most of my records are.”
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 it’s a chance to work more on composition. He had already been performing the live music for experimental director Bill Morrison’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 September’s Monterey Jazz Festival. And he is working on new music for Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet. “If I think about it,” Frisell admits, “I sometimes I get freaked out by all these things I’m doing. It’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. I’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.”
“Bill’s one of these guys who found his own voice, his own touch on the guitar,” Willner insists. “Even to this day, you hear one note and you know who it is. And to do that on a guitar or piano is incredible.”
Originally published in July/August 2012
by Geoffrey Himes / Jazz Times