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In the music spotlight: Bill Frisell

BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Guitarist Bill Frisell has made a lengthy career by thinking forward and having the good taste to defy conventions. His original music and reinterpretations of songs both popular and obscure incorporate deep understanding of genres including jazz, surf, rock, folk, country and beyond.

Frisell’s deft touch allows his guitar to sing in place of the human voice.

“So much of the music I love to play is inspired by or comes directly from songs with lyrics,” says Frisell. “I hear that sound in my head and reach for it.”

Thirteen songs covered on the lovingly crafted “Guitar in the Space Age” album were first released during the ’50s and ’60s, as Frisell’s musical sensibilities were being shaped. “After playing for more than 50 years, I’m wanting to go back and look more closely at some of the things that made me want to play in the first place,” he says.

The set finds Frisell reining in formidable improvisational skills in favor of each song’s essence. The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You” begins as a lullaby, but concludes with mesmeric crashes that promote rapture rather than slumber of the original lyrics’ exasperation.

“It’s not as aggressive as some other Kinks songs such as ‘You Really Got Me,’ which was one of the first songs I played after getting my Mustang in 1965,” says Frisell.

Surf music influences so readily identified with Frisell’s relaxed and watery melodies are honored by genre classics including “Pipeline,” “Telstar” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.”

“The first record I bought was a 45 single of the Beach Boys with ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ on one side and ‘Surfer Girl’ on the other,” says Frisell.

Frisell visits the Old Town School of Folk Music on Saturday. Joining him is an exceptional band composed of Greg Leisz on pedal steel, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Scherr’s lumbering upright bass heralds the menace that builds throughout Link Wray’s “Rumble.”

“Turn, Turn Turn” borrows the Byrds’ sparkle, adding the new texture with Leisz’ weeping pedal steel. Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag” enjoys a smooth ride with Wollesen’s easygoing train shuffle, belying the complicated patterns interlocking Frisell’s guitar with Leisz’ steel.

“He has found his own way of being completely spontaneous, in the moment, and absolutely supportive at the same time,” says Frisell of Liesz. “This must have something to do with the way we have found to play with each other.”

* Bill Frisell, 7 p.m., Jan. 24, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, (773) 728-6000. $35; oldtownschool.org.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer. Email: elbel.jeff@gmail.com