Bill Frisell: A Portrait

John Kelman By

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The performance footage ranges from a recording at San Francisco's Fantasy Studios and the rehearsal and live performance of Frisell's music by Mike Gibbs and a large orchestra to footage, from New York City's heralded Village Vanguard, of the 25 year-plus trio that Frisell shared with saxophonist Joe Lovano under the leadership of the now-deceased Paul Motian, and the 858 quartet with Roberts—who was also a member of Frisell's first quartet (with Baron and Driscoll) and who provides some insightful thoughts about Frisell, in particular, "the way Bill writes music, it sort of makes me feel like it's mine, in a way"—to footage from Frisell's ArtistShare sessions with Jim Hall that resulted in the duo/quartet double-disc release Hemispheres (2009). Scattered throughout the film, it contrasts with the interview footage to continually support the idea that how Frisell plays is a direct reflection of who he is (and, as any who have listened to some of the music he made in New York City before relocating to Seattle will know, where he is).

Frisell talks about the some of the people who allow him to forget about the necessities of being a touring, recording musician so that he can focus as much as possible, on nothing but the music: Lee Townsend, who has literally produced all but a very small handful of the solo albums that Frisell has recorded under his own steam; and Claudia Engelhardt, his live sound engineer and tour manager who has, for over 25 years, not only ensured that the sound of Frisell and his various groups get out into whatever room they're playing as best as possible, she also makes sure that everything about every tour runs like clockwork. That she's also recorded virtually every show she's mixed live has become, in recent years, the source for Frisell's (currently) 21-show Live Download Series, which not only documents groups with whom Frisell has recorded commercial releases, but also groups that have not been recorded/released anywhere else.

Frisell also reflects upon the years spent in Paul Motian's trio with Joe Lovano—who, of Frisell, nails the very qualities that make the guitarist so special, including: "Bill is one of the few cats on the scene today that has such beautiful qualities about expression and peacefulness...and he lets that come through in his playing...all the time."

At the end of the day, Frisell has both more oblique and straightforward philosophies driving him, describing the process of music-making, for example, as "always coming from the melody...always searching for the new...and challenging the feeling of trying not to repeat something great."

And whether it's music, his wife's art, the experience of studying and playing with heroes like Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, or the growing cadre of outstanding musicians with whom he continues to work year-after-year—musicians who, like Kang, Scheinman, Roberts, Scherr, Wollesen, Royston, Ron Miles and others, are his first-calls, in almost every case (bass and drums excepted), when he needs whatever instrument they play.

Because in addition to being the nicest guy in music, the humblest guy in music and the most awe-struck guitar hero when it comes to playing with his heroes, Frisell is also one of the most loyal musicians on the planet. He's someone who relates best, musically, with musicians who know him so well (or demonstrate that propensity if new to him) that there's not a lot that needs to be said about the music,. It's not about talking about it; it's about playing it...lifting it off the page and breathing new life into music that he may, in some cases, have been playing for nearly forty years. It's about finding ways to interpret the music in new, unexpected and sometimes surprisingly quirky, funny ways.

It's about communicating a story without actually having to tell the story in words alone; it's about a story articulated through music, body language and, yes, words from a guitarist about whom Nels Cline enthuses, "The impact he's had on the landscape of creative guitar music—not just jazz guitar—is incalculable."

What Emma Franz has done, with Bill Frisell: A Portrait, is reflect Frisell's own approach and personality by telling her story, astutely created through the interweaving of his carefully chosen words with those of other artists and, just as important (perhaps even more so), performance clips where Frisell is seen in his element—not just clarifying everything that's been said, but plenty more that cannot be explained in any other way but the music. It's as honest a portrayal of Frisell as could be hoped for, and Franz deserves recognition for capturing the guitarist so completely, through a collection of interview and performance footage that takes place over a period of years.

Hopefully Bill Frisell: A Portrait will see wider release on Blu Ray and/or DVD, following current plans for more theatrical showings after SXSW. It's one of the most compelling, entertaining and informative films made about a living music legend who still has plenty left to say...even if words are rarely his medium of choice.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Emma Franz
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