Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bill Frisell's Sound & Vision

Bill Frisell’s upcoming show at the Herbst is a homecoming, at least to me, and is undoubtedly one of the shows I’ve been most eagerly anticipating this season. Frisell is not only my favorite living guitarist, but on an extremely short list of my favorite musicians who has ever picked up an instrument. I’ve been fortunate to see him over 20 times, in theatres and clubs ranging from a jewel box theatre in Madrid and a hockey arena in Victoriaville Quebec to a grimy club in NYC with John Zorn’s Naked City, the Village Vanguard with the late drummer Paul Motian’s sublime trio and the old Yoshi’s location on Claremont Avenue in Oakland with his original quartet. In each case, the experience has been transformative. I don’t think I can properly verbalize why, other than to say that when you attend a live music event, you’re putting your immediate destiny in the hands of an artist, which is an act of submission. You’re handing the keys to somebody, and trusting in them to make the trip worth your time. With Frisell, I’ve always been surprised and emotionally affected by the journey. For whatever reason, he’s an artist who immediately “clicked” with me, from the first time I heard him on Naked City and on his own Is That You? and Before We Were Born back in the dark ages.

Admittedly, Frisell is a little atypical for a modern guitar hero. He is decidedly not a fire-breathing chops machine, dazzling the audience with virtuosic displays of speed and finesse. In fact, he’s something of a minimalist, making single notes and oddly voiced chords speak volumes. There’s no bravado or ego in his persona, just a visibly shy person far more prone to a sheepish grin than to a power chord-induced snarl. But in his own way, he is as unpredictable and adventurous as a musician can be, composing on the fly, crafting contrapuntal layers of guitar through delay pedals and looping samplers, and shattering the stillness with Hammond organ-like waves of distortion. Clearly, Frisell is not a pure jazz guitarist in any traditional sense — there are generous doses of country twang, echoes of rock and an avant-gardist’s taste for abstraction in his approach, and from the first note, his sound is immediately identifiable. To me, that’s the mark of a true artist. Miles Davis famously said that "you have to play a long time before you sound like yourself." Frisell has achieved that musical signature, leaving a trail of imitators in his wake. For a musician who has made a career in dozens of different settings, solo to large ensemble, screaming noise to pastoral soundscape, he remains a total individual.

Frisell’s work always projects an underlying restlessness and unsettled sense of searching, which is one of the key parts of his allure for me. I keep coming back because of that feeling of mystery, of portent. The music is so visual and cinematic that it’s no wonder Frisell has collaborated with filmmakers on several occasions, including his scores to Buster Keaton’s classic 1920s films Go West, The High Sign and One Week, soundtrack work for Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson and music to accompany the visuals of artist Jim Woodring. I was excited to hear that Frisell was collaborating with Bill Morrison, who made one of the most fascinating art films of recent years, Decasia. The subject matter of this pairing, the Mississippi River flood of 1927, is the perfect project for collaboration, since Frisell has a long-standing fascination with long-gone rural America of the early 20th century, and Morrison uses the natural degradation and decay of early film as a medium for his work. Sounds like a superb combination, and with his current band including trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than at the Herbst this Saturday night.

Here's the trailer of the Great Flood project:

Just for fun, here's a clip featuring Frisell's Intercontinentals project from a few years back, with Jenny Scheinman, Sidiki Camara, Greg Leisz and Djelimandy Tounkara.

— Rusty Aceves

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