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At Newport Jazz, Frisell gets by with a little help from his friends

Guitarist Bill Frisell will play three times at Newport.

RALPH GIBSON

Guitarist Bill Frisell will play three times at Newport.

The jazz guitarist Bill Frisell can play knotty, cerebral music with the best of the avant-garde, but being cryptic is not his stock in trade. He’s interested in the history and art of the song, the American folk tradition, roots music of different origins, and that makes much of his own work lyrical and in some emotional sense, familiar.

But while some music feels familiar in a vague way, other songs are so universal that they summon in the listener instantly recalled lyrics and a kaleidoscope of memories; songs freighted, even burdened, with meaning.

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“All We Are Saying. . .”, Frisell’s latest album, devoted to the repertoire of John Lennon, and which he presents on Saturday with his quintet at the Newport Jazz Festival, boldly enters that complicated territory.

“Most of my albums have something somebody knows, a folk song, something recognizable,” says Frisell, 61. “But this music, almost every person on the planet has some kind of relationship with.”

The songs, divided evenly between songs Lennon wrote for the Beatles and ones from his later career, are indeed mostly global heritage items: “In My Life,” “Imagine,” and “Give Peace a Chance” are all there. Others are only slightly less famous, such as “Mother” or “#9 Dream.”

And rather than deconstruct them or use them as allusive source code for an analytical project, Frisell and his group, with violinist Jenny Scheinman sharing the front line, take the campfire approach: Play the songs as they exist, and see what happens.

“We didn’t try to take them apart,” Frisell says. “This band has a legacy of playing together, we’re best friends. We’re taking what we know of the songs and what they tell us to do, the same as if it was a Sam Cooke song, or Hank Williams.”

It’s in the delivery that the magic happens, of course. Frisell and band bring the full arsenal of their jazz, folk, and blues knowledge to these songs, opening them up or, as he says, peeling back layers.

“The songs are fantastic, there’s all kinds of stuff in there to draw from,” he says. “When we first did this, my standard line was that this music was always part of my life. In a way that’s a lie. I’d never spent time studying it the way I tried to learn a Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker song. I’d never done that with these songs until now.”

The Lennon project brings Frisell to Newport’s main stage, but is not his only presence at the festival. He’ll also play with the smart, witty trio the Bad Plus later Saturday, and perform duets with Scheinman on Sunday.

When he meets up with the Bad Plus, another spirit will hover over the proceedings — that of the great drummer Paul Motian, who passed away last year. Frisell played in Motian’s trio, alongside saxman Joe Lovano, for three decades, and the much younger Ethan Iverson, the Bad Plus pianist, worked with Motian in recent years.

The passing of the torch, the learning across generations, the overlapping long-term collaborations, and one-off experimental side gigs are part of jazz’s history and its way of being. They are traits especially marked at a festival like Newport, where the programming is focused and rigorous, yet the atmosphere is familial and relaxed.

Frisell is a jazz road warrior and by now one of the music’s senior figures. But the chance to work in such a setting never gets old, he says. “It still kind of blows my mind that I get to do stuff like this.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter
@gmail.com.
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