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'What Made That Thing Work?': Bill Frisell Takes On Screen Music

Bill Frisell's new album, <em>When You Wish Upon a Star</em>, comes out Jan. 29.
Courtesy of the artist
Bill Frisell's new album, When You Wish Upon a Star, comes out Jan. 29.

One of the world's most inventive guitarists and composers has recorded a tribute to some of his favorite music from TV and film. Bill Frisell's When You Wish Upon a Star covers the screen from Bonanza to The Godfather to the poignant themes of To Kill a Mockingbird. He joined NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about how the music first came to him, and what it is about a well-crafted theme that can make it stick with you forever.

Rachel Martin: Did you grow up watching a lot of TV? And movies, for that matter.

Bill Frisell: Yeah. I mean, I think there was no escaping it. Growing up in the '50s — I was born in 1951 — you know, I still remember vividly when my father brought home this big box and opened it up, and there was a TV in there. And I was like, "Wow." I couldn't believe it.

So even when you were young, was it the soundtracks to these shows that stood out to you?

Maybe it was more subliminal or something. It's not just the film or the TV show — there's all these memories associated. I remember getting my driver's license, and on one of my first dates, driving my parents' car to go see a James Bond movie. So when I hear that James Bond theme, it brings back all kinds of things.

Let's talk about that cut on the album, because it's a cool one — the theme from You Only Live Twice . You have a pretty awesome vocalist on this: Petra Haden, one of the daughters of the late, great bassist Charlie Haden. I will cop to not knowing which film this was! Who was the James Bond in this movie?

It was Sean Connery. Who, for me, is still the real one — sorry.

You're not a Daniel Craig guy?

I like him, too, but there's something about those first ones. That's the stuff for me.

Is there a song on here that really resonates with you? That actually conjures up some kind of specific childhood memory?

There's a great combo here: "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Bonanza." One of my real strong memories is, when I was a kid, my best friend who lived across the street, he had a guitar over there — that was, I think, the first time I tried to pick up a guitar — but his family also had a big color television set. So, Sunday evening, it was sort of a routine that I would go over to his house and his mom would cook dinner, and then Disney's Wonderful World of Color would come on.

I remember it starting off with Jiminy Cricket singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" — I guess it was sort of the theme music. And so, that's just way, way back in my DNA. Then, right after that, Bonanza would come on — and it was like, " Man." How many times have I heard that theme? But I didn't actually try to play it until just in the last couple years.

Is it hard?

It is! For me.

It sounds like you're at a particularly reflective moment — where you're kind of looking back, trying to figure out how you became who you are, making the kind of music that you make. What have you found out?

Well, it's not like I want to go backwards, so much. I'm also looking for, maybe, some keys to some mystery about the first time you hear something extraordinary, the first time you hear something new or something amazing. What made that thing work?

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