Saturday, July 30, 2016

Six Bill Frisell Tunes on Tenor Banjo

Bill Frisell with Lucy (photo by Monica Frisell)
Over the last two months I've started to play a half dozen new tunes that are either Bill Frisell compositions or closely related to him.  I'm always looking for unusual new tunes to play - simple, distinctive melodic pieces that would be enjoyable to interpret on tenor banjo.  The selections below were all recorded on the couch in my living room in a span of about 30 minutes starting at about 8:30 this morning (July 30, 2016).  I love to get up early on a Saturday morning and start playing banjo.  This is what I would have been doing anyway. I just happened to have a recorder going this time so that these could be documented.

The tune that really got me interested in attempting some Bill Frisell stuff is We All Love Neil Young from Bill's Big Sur album.  I was instantly drawn to the melody and it seemed like I was almost able to play the notes the first time I ever tried.  I later had some help figuring out a couple of the pesky bits.  I don't have good, consistent timing here because I'm just playing it solo and I'd rather just play it than pause for the beats that are supposed to be there.  This melody shows up in other places on the Big Sur album.  Song for Lana Weeks for example.

Next is I Am Not A Farmer from the Disfarmer album.  This is another great example of a very simple - very Frisell like - melody.  It's actually quite similar to We All Love Neil Young.  If you listen to the Disfarmer album all the way through, this melody shows up multiple times under different names.  I struggle with what to do with the B-part since it's so sparse.  On the actual recording there's what amounts to a 3rd part that is just an E-minor chord for a few measures.  I don't really know how to make that work in a solo arrangement, so I just skip that sequence and make it an AA/BB tune.

The 3rd tune I recorded this morning is Uele, which I think is an African (Congolese) children's song.  The full title might be Uele Moliba Makasi.  There's a video of a Bill Frisell concert from the Barbican Theater in London 2/29/2004 featuring Djelimady Tounkara, Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman and Sidiki Camara where they play this tune. That's where I heard it. I don't think it's on any officially released Frisell recordings.  What I play is a loose, evolving interpretation of it that comes out different every time.

Speaking of Jenny Scheinman and Sidiki Camara -- Jenny Scheinman has a tune she wrote called Song for Sidiki which I'm assuming must be for djembe player Sidiki Camara.  Scheinman is a frequent collaborator with Bill Frisell and Song for Sidiki is one they often play together.  All of these tunes so far, and especially Song for Sidiki, are exactly what I'm looking for right now.  Relatively simple in structure, with a cool A part and (sometimes) a weird but even cooler B-part.

Bill Frisell has a tune on his Blues Dream album called Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine that is so traditional in its melody and chords that when played as a fiddle tune it sounds just like an old folk song that you can't quite place. Almost too standard. It sorta reminds me of Sweet Sunny South or maybe Uncloudy Day. I was fooling around with it, trying to decide if I liked it enough to add it to my repertoire, and as part of this experimentation played it in A-minor instead of A-major.  I instantly liked it better in A-minor.  It all of a sudden sounds more Middle-Eastern or something.  It's basically just a one-part tune. I would love to find a B-part for it but I haven't yet.  In this recording I toggle between major and minor (which gives it the impression of a two-part tune), and then I add an ending tag inspired by the end of Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming, its sister-song from the Blues Dream album.

Perhaps the most difficult Bill Frisell tune I've attempted so far is one of his earlier compositions - Amarillo Barbados.  I like it because it's got a funky Caribbean feel to the A-part, paired with an odd, almost Camper Van Beethoven-ish B-part.  I changed the key for this to make the notes easier to reach.  I wasn't expecting to be able to record this today.  Usually I make too many flubs to get all the way through, but I managed to somewhat capture it one take despite being constantly on the verge of collapse the whole time!


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