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Bill Frisell: Ramping It Up

By Published: April 25, 2011
Even an album like the relatively overlooked The Willies (2002)—on the surface, a bluegrass record furthering the work of Nashville, but with bassist Keith Lowe and banjoist/guitarist/harmonicist/keyboardist Danny Barnes, where Frisell demonstrates his ability to take even a simple major chord and turn it on its side with the slightest change to the voicing—possesses its own kinds of risk. "I'm thinking of what I was trying to do," says Frisell. "So much has to do with the people I'm playing with. The Willies thing—I was playing a lot with Danny Barnes. I was taking lessons with him and trying to learn tunes from him—learn some of the language that he has, coming from growing up in Texas, playing the banjo. And I wanted to check that out; it was like a way to enter into these places and learn about them. But for me, there's room. I need all that stuff; the world of music is so huge, and there's room for all that stuff—and it can even all happen at the same time. It's all good."

It's a given that music is often a reflection of who we are; but equally, it can be a reflection of where we are. The softer-toned Sign of Life, written, as it was, in the heart of the northern Green Mountains of Vermont, makes total sense, despite having moments, like on the title track, that are compositionally reminiscent of Where in the World? (1991), and other moments, like on the opening track, that possess the rootsier reflections of albums like Good Dog, Happy Man (1999). Frisell continues his hectic schedule, with more Live Download Series on the horizon and, of course, no shortage of live performances. Recent and upcoming releases include Lagrimas Mexicanas (E1 Music, 2011), a duo recording with Intercontinentals partner Vinicius Cantuaria; Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings (New West, 2011), an equally tremendous record that teams Frisell, in addition to Miller, with Greg Liesz, Marc Ribot and a group of singers including Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Lee Ann Womack, for a singer/songwriter album with a difference; and a sequel to the collage-like Floratone (Blue Note, 2007), which is nearing completion, with planned release also on Savoy.

But another forthcoming Frisell project, perhaps more than most, demonstrates his intrinsic reflection of the where as much as the who. "Yeah, I've thought about it," says Frisell. "I travel so much, and I do notice that from place to place, though it's such a subtle thing. I'm so affected by the air, by the temperature. When I did Disfarmer [an album largely inspired by the Depression-era photographs of Michael Disfarmer], I didn't want to just look at those pictures in a book, I wanted to be there in the town were the guy was.

"For me, it gets more and more important where I am," Frisell continues. "In the spring [2011], I'm gonna be doing this project of Bill Morrison, the filmmaker. He's gonna do a film using this old archival footage of the New Orleans flood from 1927. It's still in the really early stages—I've been thinking about it, but I haven't done much more. But for that, I'm actually gonna go play with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen and Ron Miles
Ron Miles
Ron Miles

, and it's all abstract—I don't even know what the film is gonna look like. But it's old footage from that time—this horrible, Katrina-like event—but it also had a lot to do with people migrating up north; they just couldn't deal with being there anymore. And it parallels the music: going from more rural things to people moving up to Chicago and more city stuff, the music went from acoustic to electric; there was all that kind of stuff going on.

So we're gonna play in New Orleans and St Louis, and travel up and down the river [Mississippi] a bit, to get it together. I've never really done that with a whole band as the music is being formed. I was thinking it would just be so cool to do this with everyone there at the same time so we get this common feeling—to be in Mississippi and to play together. There's no way you could write that on a piece of paper."

Like his Music for the Films of Buster Keaton (1995), Frisell plans to perform the music live as a true soundtrack to the film, which will also be presented. But in the meantime—between two (possibly more) recordings on Savoy Jazz, Lagrimas Mexicanas, Majestic Silver Strings, the second Floratone, the John Lennon Tribute and the Live Download Series, which continues to release a new show every other month—the diversity of his work is clear proof that, while some continue looking for ways to categorize Frisell's music, his multifaceted interests have always been more about expanding horizons, and broader consolidations. There's really no single description that fits Frisell anymore, other than that—no matter what he does or with whom who he does it—his voice is recognizable from the very first note. For any artist, it rarely gets better than that.

Selected Discography

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