Feb 222021

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Bill Frisell covers

We’ve highlighted several of guitarist Bill Frisell’s covers in the past—songs by Madonna, Lou Reed, John Lennon, and more. But it’s time Frisell gets a post of his own. He’s been abundantly prolific for several decades now, and in recent years his output rate has only accelerated. He turns 70 next month, and may get Grammied again, this time for last year’s Americana album, a collaboration with Grégoire Maret and Romain Collin, with its covers of Bon Iver, Jimmy Webb, and Mark Knopler. In this post we’ll survey the whole Frisell catalog, not just the recent achievements, with a focus on songs in the rock/pop/country genres.

Like Frisell’s original pieces, his covers have a unique charm that keep you guessing as to what you are going to get. His music contains multitudes and contradicts itself. Sometimes his covers are unrecognizable derangements of the original song; in other moods he’ll stay so true to melody it feels like a close dance.

Every turn in his career comes as a bit of surprise, not that his intention is to shock or even make waves. He can seemingly work with anyone—that’s how universally admired he is—yet he often chooses to collaborate with artists who defy categorization and fly below the commercial radar—banjo-player Danny Barnes, harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, and singers like Petra Haden are some examples. Then again, he’ll release a full album tribute to John Lennon’s music, or return again and again to the songs of Bob Dylan.

It’s worth noting that he doesn’t buy into the hype about his originality when it comes to covers. He cites Sonny Rollins work in the fifties as a shaper of his sensibility: “He wasn’t afraid to play ‘I’m an Old Cowhand,’ even though people might say, ‘Oh, that’s a corny tune.’” Of his turn toward country and bluegrass genres in the mid-1990s, he again points to precursors like vibraphonist Gary Burton. “On Tennessee Firebird he goes to Nashville and plays with a bunch of Nashville guys, I go to Nashville and play with a bunch of Nashville guys. All this stuff’s been done before. When critics talk about me they talk about ‘Americana’ this or ‘Country’ this or that. I mean I’m sorry, but I’m just following along.”

We’re following too, Bill, so keep them coming.

Bill Frisell–A Change is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke cover)

Frisell has returned to Sam Cooke’s soulful classic a number of times. He orchestrated an eight minute rendition for a large ensemble with string and woodwind instruments, and he plays a duet treatment on an album led by drummer Joey Baron. But this solo version seems like a good opener. Next to his other iterations, it is more compact and direct, with a light off-the-cuff feel almost like a tiny desk concert (except this one is the office of a guitar magazine).

Bill Frisell Trio–Ventura (Lucinda Williams cover)

It was a stroke of genius to pair the optimistic and happy-go-lucky Frisell with Lucinda Williams, an artist known for her hard-bitten and heartbroken country songs. “Ventura” is one of her best, and most bleak, compositions. (Or is it bleak? Lucinda often expresses two different moods at once.)

Musically the song is simplicity itself: a folk chord progression played over and over, the verse no different from the chorus, and there’s no bridge or middle section. The Bill Frisell trio, sans vocalist, decides to ride that simple chord progression over and over again, and stick to the melody all the while. This they do for 10 minutes, twice as long as the original. The listening experience is like staring out at ocean waves: they all look alike as they roll in, until they don’t, and you see how each wave rolls and breaks in its own way, and you might feel the tug of cross-currents and undertows under the calm surface.

Bill Frisell–One of These Days (Neil Young cover)

Since the previous song name checks Neil Young, we’ll turn to Frisell’s take on Neil’s song “One of These Days,” from Harvest Moon. The cover is on Frisell’s 1997 Nashville, a project he recorded in Music City with bluegrass luminaries Jerry Douglas, Adam Steffey, and others. Nashville was a change-up for Frisell, and it changed a lot of minds about what the guitarist was all about; people still had him pegged as an avant-garde experimentalist, a mad scientist tangled up in loopers and effect pedals. Breaking bread with the Nashville pickers, Frisell leaves his weirder electronics behind. But he doesn’t pretend to be Doc Watson–he keeps to his own quirky voice, which sparks a more flavorful musical conversation. The track features singer and composer Robin Holcomb, who comes in only on the chorus—a nice refraction of the original song that allows the instrumentalists to explore the verses.

Viktor Krauss/Alison Krauss/Bill Frisell–Big Log (Robert Plant cover)

For the Nashville sessions, Frisell brought in Viktor Krauss on bass. Krauss was still in his twenties, but he’d already worked with Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton, and his famous sister Alison. Returning the favor, Krauss called upon Frisell when recording his own star-studded album, 2004’s Far From Enough. This may not be Frisell’s arrangement of Robert Plant’s “Big Log,” but the guitarist’s distinctive ambient vibe is all over it. Alison Krauss on vocals is her usual glorious self. She teamed up with Plant for reals just a few years later on their surprising Raising Sand release: maybe it’s this cover that connected those dots?

Petra Hagen and Bill Frisell–I Believe (Stevie Wonder cover)

We’ve covered Petra Haden before, and noted she’s idiosyncratic in her cover selections. This makes Frisell a fine ally for the indie-folk vocalist and violinist. The two artists are a generation apart, but Frisell worked closely with Petra’s father—jazz bassist Charlie Haden—and considered him a mentor; you do sense a long familiarity at play in this collaboration. Petra and Bill’s 2005 self-titled effort is almost entirely a covers album. The duo creates a layered dreamy atmosphere around somewhat unlikely material, including songs by Haden’s favorites Elliot Smith, Foo Fighters, and Coldplay. The choice to do Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe,” may have been Frisell’s call—just a guess. His multi-layered guitar orchestra seems in keeping with the sonic spirit of the original; it shows how forward-looking Stevie Wonder could be in the early seventies.

Bill Frisell–Tired of Waiting for You (The Kinks cover)

Frisell’s Guitar in the Space Age release is a nod to his early days playing surf-rock in Denver, Colorado circa 1965. But for some reason he included this chiming and churning rendition of an early hit from the Kinks. Though there’s nothing surfy or space age about the song, it’s a treat anyway. Unlike many of the Kinks’ mid-sixties contemporaries, the band never dabbled in psychedelia; this cover kinda does it for them. It is a fine example of Frisell’s partnership with Greg Leisz, who plays lap steel or pedal steel guitar on many of Frisell’s best recordings; sometimes both players are in the foreground, sometimes both take a backseat to each other. (Leisz has recorded with everyone from Joan Baez to Father John Misty, Joni Mitchell to Morrissey, Beck to Phoebe Bridgers.)

Bill Frisell Trio–Have a Little Faith in Me (John Hiatt cover)

Many artists have covered John Hiatt’s song “Have a Little Faith in Me” (Dan Mangan most recently, as we discussed here). Bill Frisell was among the first to do so, and he took it a step further by naming a whole album after the song. Hats off to Hiatt, since the album also includes covers of Madonna, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Sonny Rollins, and Aaron Copland.

A music writer once asked 25 influential guitarists to cite their favorite guitar solo. Frisell’s answer: “What came into my mind when I heard the question was older things that still excite me. Wes Montgomery, say. But the truth is that recently I was most excited by John Hiatt playing acoustic – just four quarter-note triads. He was solo, and what he was playing – just strumming up and down, and the rhythm – defined the feel of each tune so well. It wasn’t hard to understand, just a C chord. But the way he was being musical with it transcended that it was a guitar, and for me that’s one of the heaviest things someone can do.”

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  One Response to “In the Spotlight: Bill Frisell”

Comments (1)
  1. Bloody lovely piece, if expensive: I now need so many of these discs, thinking I already had enough of his own original work!!

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