At the Academy Awards on Sunday, pop stars including Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and the Weeknd are expected to perform some of the tunes vying for this year’s original song Oscar before a television audience in the tens of millions.
The veteran jazz guitarist Bill Frisell was doing basically the same thing on Thursday night — only with older songs (most from the 1960s) and for a much smaller crowd (maybe 200 folks seated on folding chairs).
The occasion was a concert at the Skirball Cultural Center, part of a tour by Frisell and his band behind “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the guitarist’s new album of movie music that contains inventive renditions of such Oscar-winning themes as “Moon River” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
Introducing the latter, featured in 1965’s “The Sandpiper,” Frisell, 64, noted that it recalled an era when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton “were getting it together for the first time.”
“Picture that,” he added with a little chuckle, and thanks to his supple tone and a breathy vocal from singer Petra Haden, that was easy enough to do.
The sound of vintage Hollywood is just one of the many interests Frisell has been pursuing for more than three decades. In the last few years alone, he’s released records based on the songs of John Lennon, his childhood love of surf rock and the natural grandeur of Big Sur (where, as he pointed out Thursday, “The Sandpiper” was shot).
But if he’s a happy explorer, Frisell is no dilettante. When he takes up a style or concept, he goes all in, carefully thinking through the material (or writing his own) and assembling the right players to help put across his perspective.
Joined at the Skirball by Haden, violist Eyvind Kang, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Kenny Wollesen, the guitarist seemed eager to unsettle fixed ideas about music that in some cases has become aural wallpaper.
Their version of Bernard Herrmann’s theme from “Psycho,” for instance, was less scary than sad, with mournful long tones from Kang and Haden that made you think about life — not just death — at the Bates Motel. In a similar spirit, the players stripped away the lush drama of “You Only Live Twice,” from the 1967 James Bond film, to remake the ballad as a kind of rustic folk song. (Add vocal harmony and it would’ve fit right in with Haden’s L.A.-based sister trio, the Haden Triplets.)
Frisell didn’t resist playing some of this stuff straight. “When You Wish Upon a Star” was perfectly wistful, while “Goldfinger” had more of Shirley Bassey’s flash than you might’ve expected.
Yet by performing that lovably glitzy number alongside somewhat higher-brow selections by Michel Legrand (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) and Elmer Bernstein (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), Frisell was still disrupting as he did his part to dismantle whatever snobbery remains in the world of film music.
Indeed, he closed Thursday’s show with a faithful — and disarmingly tender — run through the theme from TV’s “Bonanza.”
It was a gesture Lady Gaga could appreciate.