Bill Frisell: A Portrait

John Kelman By

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Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell: A Portrait
A Film by Emma Franz

Not long after the film Bill Frisell: A Portrait begins to roll, Bonnie Raitt—one of the many high profile names that lend their thoughts about one of the most influential guitarists and composers of the past forty years to the film, in this guitarist/singer/songwriter's case, having enlisted him as a guest on her last two albums (2012's Grammy Award-winning Slipstream and 2016 follow-up Dig in Deep—describes Frisell as ..."a unifying force amongst so many different musicians. I don't know that many people, in as wide a range of styles of music, that have as much respect for anybody as they do for Bill. He's universally loved."

Not long afterwards, producer Hal Willner—with whom Frisell has worked on many projects, including the guitarist's own Grammy-winning Unspeakable (Nonesuch, 2004)—expands upon the profound respect, admiration and love that he and many other share when it comes to Frisell and his music.

So, it's clear that Bill Frisell is a guitarist, composer and multiple bandleader who may be the nicest, most admirable guy—not just in jazz, but in music, period. But Bill Frisell: A Portrait—Emma Franz's captivating two- hour documentary about an artist who, at a healthy-looking age 65, is a long way from finished but, with hundreds of recorded appearances and a personal discography of nearly forty albums, is long overdue this kind of detailed look—reveals so much about Frisell the musician and the man. A deep thinker who nevertheless tries, when he plays and composes, not to think too much, Frisell may also be one of the most humble, generous and honest artists on any scene, and the beauty of Franz's film is that it comes about as close to capturing just who he is as anyone who has had the pleasure of getting to know him to even a small degree will know.

Building a narrative told without a narrator and, instead, through the words of Frisell and some of the many musicians with whom he's collaborated—as well as an abundance of live, rehearsal and in-the-studio footage of the guitarist playing with some of his many favorite musicians—Bill Frisell: A Portrait is also beautifully edited into a cohesive tale not, nevertheless, unlike how Frisell plays: tangential, sometimes, yes; but always with a core attention to the heart of any song: its story, and how to tell it in as deeply personal a way as possible.

Premiered on March 12, 2017 at the annual South-by-Southwest (SXSW) event in Austin, Texas—which has linked together film, interactive media and music festivals and conferences for the past thirty years—Bill Frisell: A Portrait ends full circle, featuring performance footage of a collaboration with composer/arranger Michael Gibbs that begins, at the start of the film, in rehearsal. At one point, Gibbs tells Frisell: "I want you to soar." "I will," replies Frisell, with his common combination of self-deprecating confidence and humility. "It's just I'm sort of stunned, I don't know what to say [all the while with that huge, sometimes sheepish grin—one of the most genuine, honest smiles that is another of his most common expressions, especially when performing]. It just feels like the inside of my brain; at least, what I wish was the inside of my brain."

That Gibbs is featured throughout the film—but also to both kick it off and close it—was an inspired choice, as it's a case of full circle, with the student now playing on equal footing with the teacher. In the mid-'70s, Frisell's studied with Gibbs during his second time at Boston's Berklee College of Music—having dropped out of the guitar performance program uncertain as to whether or not he'd be able to amount to anything, and returning to his home in Colorado to teach at a music store until he decided to go back to the renowned jazz college, but this time focusing on composition and arrangement. Gibbs and Herb Pomeroy were significant contributors to who the guitarist would ultimately become. Then, after finishing Berklee and moving to Belgium (where he met his wife of almost forty years, artist Carol), Frisell ended up replacing Philip Catherine in Gibbs' touring band of the late '70s—touring the U.K. and other parts of Europe in a group that also included Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Mariano, John Marshall and Eberhard Weber...all artists recording for the German ECM Records label that had begun to build a unique place for itself in the jazz landscape over the past several years, and with whom Frisell would do much of his earliest recording, first as a sideman and then as a leader on three dates beginning with 1983's In Line.


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