The Cinematic Sounds of Bill Frisell | Bleader

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Cinematic Sounds of Bill Frisell

Posted By on 10.12.09 at 04:57 PM

Bill Frisell
  • Bill Frisell
In a career spanning nearly four decades, guitarist Bill Frisell has developed one of the most instantly recognizable voices in jazz—a clean, lushly textured, almost pastoral sound that evokes the wide-open spaces of the American west. Though his music has a lot of implied twang, it took Frisell many years to explicitly address Americana—he finally did it with his 1997 album Nashville. Since then he’s regularly worked with some of the most progressive pickers in country and bluegrass.

Frisell also has an almost preternatural ability to evoke pensive, introspective moods of various flavors—his solitary but wide-open sound conjures up a deserted ranch with tumbleweeds bouncing across its parched fields, a setting that, depending on the circumstances, might be used to summon melancholy nostalgia or foretell violence. This facet of Frisell’s music hasn’t escaped film directors; he’s contributed to the scores of half a dozen movies, including Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester.

Earlier this year the U.S. branch of Emarcy Records released Frisell’s score for All Hat, a Leonard Farlinger film that as far as I can tell has never screened in Chicago. The 31 tracks are mostly under two minutes, but even at that length they can usually stand on their own as Frisell music. He recorded these concise vignettes with steel guitar maestro Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Scott Amendola, and harmonica player Mark Graham, and most of them focus on licks instead of atmosphere, so that they crackle even when divorced from the movie. Frisell wrote everything, save a couple of versions of the folk standard “John Hardy”—his signature moods are in full effect—and it’s rewarding to hear certain themes reinvented or readapted as they recur throughout the score.

Frisell takes a similar tack—with Leisz, Scheinman, and Krauss in support—on his most recent album, Disfarmer (Nonesuch). This time the inspiration came not from a modern movie but from photographs shot by Mike Disfarmer in Heber Springs, Arkansas, between 1939 and 1945—and by the story of the photographer himself. Born Mike Meyers into a family of German immigrants, Disfarmer so abhorred the farming life into which he was born that he legally changed his name. Though he was somewhat reclusive and reportedly cranky, in his 40s he turned his interest in photography into a vocation, capturing an era and a place with vibrant power. The titles of Frisell’s compositions indicate that some were written for specific photo subjects and others for the photographer (“I Am Not a Farmer,” “Natural Light”), and covers of tunes by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Hank Williams are interspersed with the original material. I enjoy this album more than All Hat because it feels like a relatively unfettered expression of Frisell’s imagination—he’s not trying to follow somebody else’s onscreen action but rather offering his own reactions.

Last month some of Frisell’s earliest film-scoring work got a much-belated release on DVD. In the early 90s he was commissioned by St. Ann’s in Brooklyn to create music for three Buster Keaton films—Go West, One Week, and High Sign. The recordings, made with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron, were issued by Nonesuch back in 1995, but this DVD is the first time they’ve been synched with the silent films. The music does nothing but enhance the mix of slapstick, melancholy, and promise in these brilliant Keaton performances: while Baron tends to use his kit as a sound-effect machine for every collision and pratfall, the rest of the music usually shadows and enhances the mood of the visuals instead of attempting to telegraph details.

The same company, Songline/Tone Field Productions, has also released a DVD of a solo Frisell performance recorded in a Toronto church in 2004. The music is lovely, though there’s not much took at—but the interview footage is excruciating. Frisell is, unfortunately, pretty great at demonstrating that some musicians communicate better with their instruments than with their words.

On Saturday Frisell leads a trio with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen at the Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg.

photo: Michael Wilson

Today’s playlist:

Curtis Mayfield, Back to the World (Charly)
Lula Côrtes, Rosa de Sangue (Time-Lag)
Kala Ramnath and Ganesh Iyer, Samaya (Sense World Music)
Teddy Charles, Dances With Bulls (Smalls)
Fontella Bass, The Very Best of Fontella Bass (Chess, UK)

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