In the music spotlight: Bill Frisell

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BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Versatile guitarist Bill Frisell last visited the Old Town School of Folk Music while supporting 2014’s “Guitar in the Space Age.” The album’s colorful interpretations of rock and roll favorites from Frisell’s youth were heralded among his best. This year, Frisell returns to explore his love of visual storytelling. His new “When You Wish Upon a Star” album reimagines music that is indelibly linked to images from film and television.

“It’s so inspiring when a director lets the musician go – like Fellini with Nino Rota, Hitchcock with Bernard Herrmann, Jim Jarmusch with Neil Young, or the Birdman movie with Antonio Sanchez,” says Frisell. “When I see those images, I hear the sound in my head without even trying.”

“Once Upon a Time in the West in particular blows my mind,” says Frisell of the partnership between director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone. “The pacing of the film is more like an opera or a ballet. There’s so much space for the music.”

The songs have important associations with Frisell’s formative years. “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ brings back the memory of seeing the film with my family,” he says. “We drove up from Denver toward the mountains to see it in Boulder. I remember walking in not knowing what I was going to see, and how moved I was. I grew up in the fifties and sixties, so it was in the midst of the civil rights movement. I had seen Martin Luther King speak around that time. I must have been 13 or 14 years old.”

Some connections were more lighthearted. “It could even be something like getting my drivers license and taking a girl to see a James Bond movie downtown,” says Frisell. “At the time, I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ Things like driving my parents’ car and going through a red light on the way. Luckily, I didn’t get a ticket.”

Frisell’s quirky theme to 1994’s “Tales from the Far Side” gets updated. “It was a television special around Halloween with Gary Larson’s cartoons come to life,” says Frisell of the original project. “He really trusted me. There were no words – just the music and the vignettes.”

Frisell’s band of longtime collaborators includes singer/violinist Petra Haden, who made her own album of film music in 2013 called “Petra Goes to the Movies.” The album is entirely a capella, and shares one piece with Frisell’s record. “She did ‘Psycho,’” he says. “It was amazing to hear her do that completely orchestrated with her voice.”

* Bill Frisell, 8 p.m., Fri. Feb. 19, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln,$35; oldtownschool.org.

SPOTIFY playlist: http://bit.ly/FrisellSPOT

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

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