Bill Frisell: Solos and Films of Buster Keaton

John Kelman By

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In a career which is in 2009 entering its fourth decade in the public eye, guitarist Bill Frisell has fashioned a trajectory like no other. As comfortable playing Hank Williams country tunes as he is a Ron Carter blues, the guitarist has created such a distinctive sound that, even when he's playing a plain old G chord, it's immediately recognizable.

Idiosyncratic and able to take even the most conventional idea on its side, Frisell has gradually built a sizable discography—as a sideman, but more notably as a leader—that ranges from form-based free-exchange trios and larger, brass-driven ensembles, to intimate bluegrass groups and vivid solo performances. His tone is so warm, so enveloping, that it's sometimes difficult to get past the instant appeal of it to the actual note he's playing; but get to those notes and what's always there is as profoundly personal approach to lyricism, even at its most jagged, that's as much Robert Johnson as it is Jim Hall.

Two DVD releases provide a deep window into two of Frisell's best contexts. Bill Frisell: Solos captures Frisell, lovingly recorded at the Berkeley Church in Toronto, Canada, for a live but apparently audience-less solo set that blends his own material with traditional songs, and music by Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Films of Buster Keaton: Music by Bill Frisell finally makes available the music that the guitarist wrote for three of Keaton's best silent films—released on CD as Go West (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1995) and The High Sign/One Week (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1995), but until now never seen with the films, unless you were fortunate enough to have caught one of his live performances with his then decade-old trio of bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron.

Bill FrisellBill Frisell
Bill Frisell: Solos
Songline/Tonefield Productions

Solos is Frisell at his most intimate; a guitarist capable of creating a rich soundscape through use of loops, remarkable to watch as his hands and feet are busy pushing buttons and adjusting knobs, even while he's creating a broad landscape that's surprisingly orchestral, given it's just one man, one guitar and, admittedly, an array of effects. Reverb, loops, distortion and other sound processing is used to great effect, whether it's on the guitarist's melodic but still somehow twisted "Throughout" (erroneously linked with "Ron Carter," which is really just a continuation of "Throughout") to the more heavily effects-laden "Boubacar," which would ultimately show up on the world music-centric The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003).

Even when Frisell has a set list in mind, it's usually a fluid one, allowing the guitarist to go from song to song with unpredictable segues. "After all the intellectual stuff gets out of the way, then you just play; that's the state I hope to be in when I'm really playing...it's just coming out," Frisell says in one of the brief interview clips that act as links between the songs. Frisell may not have the affect of a player who's mind is elsewhere, but it's clear, during this performance, that he's achieved the desired state. "Sometimes it takes a while for the songs to sink down deep enough for it to come out that way," he continues, "that's probably why a lot of the songs I play, I've been playing them for a long time."

An answer to the question some fans have, then, about why he continues to rehash so many of the same songs over and over again. As recently as the 2009 Montreal Jazz Festival, Frisell—this time with a quartet—continued to mine some of the same material. But here, without either the safety net of a group or the inherent encumbrances of same (even though a Frisell group performance manages to be almost as liquid), Frisell can take his time finding his way to a tune's core. Ethereal, with music seeming to come from everywhere thanks to both Frisell's own approach to processing and the rich sound of the church, he winds his way through a rubato look at the traditional "Wildwood Flower," ending the main performance with his own "Poem for Eva." Frisell has always possessed an inimitable ability to mine the simplest of ideas and find new nuances; watching him at work is a revelation for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Three bonus tracks extend the program to nearly an hour, with Frisell's dark-hued take on Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" the clear highlight, though the Gershwin classic, "My Man's Gone Now" comes a close second as a track that demonstrates the guitarist still has his jazz chops. Still, Frisell has never been about any one style; instead, he simply looks for good material, whether it's his own or sourced elsewhere. There was considerable kerfuffle when Nashville (Nonesuch, 1997) won Down Beat's Record of the Year; even guitarist John Abercrombie spoke out against it. But the truth is that Frisell sees no boundaries, no real definitions in the music he makes. He might pepper a country tune with an altered chord or create an atmospheric cloud over a jazz standard. It's all music, and Bill Frisell: Solos is a terrific opportunity to watch the guitarist at play.

Bill FrisellBill Frisell
Bill Frisell: Films of Buster Keaton
Songline/Tonefield Productions

One of the first impressions, watching Frisell performing the Buster Keaton soundtracks at the 1995 Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, was that it was the first time Joey Baron had ever been seen with the guitarist without a tremendous grin on his face. The reason? With a large screen above the trio with Kermit Driscoll, projecting the film for the audience, the drummer was too busy watching a television monitor with the same footage, to ensure he caught every cue. It was a difficult choice between watching the trio or watching the film; both were equally compelling and, given it was the final performance by a trio that had been performing for ten years together, it was hard not to want to give it its due.

With the long-overdue release of the three Keaton films on DVD, with Frisell's fabulous soundtrack, the choice is removed. The music is as vivid as ever, but there are no visual appearances of the band. Instead, it's Keaton's two shorts—the life of an early married couple trying to build settle into its first home in One Week, and Keaton as a bumbling less-than-sharpshooter hired both to protect and kill the same man in The High Sign—as well as the feature length (for the time; at 69 minutes, still short) Go West, a buddy movie with Keaton and a cow named "Brown Eyes," that occupy the visuals completely.

Frisell's idiosyncratic musical levity is the perfect foil for Keaton's more explicit slapstick, and the written music—which possessed no shortage of improv also—suits all three films. Whether it's the rolling motion of his music for a train trip in Go West—spiced with odd electronic injections, as Keaton struggles with a stack of barrels—or his music for The High Sign, which manages to feel of the film's time, distinctly modern, and ultimately timeless, all at once, Frisell and Driscoll make all the right choices.

But it's Baron who carries the music, something that's less evident when just listening to it, but completely obvious while watching the films. He hits every mark, creates rustling sounds to go along with fast motion, manages to nail every one of Keaton's hammer strokes in One Week—even when they're apparently out of time—and manages to inject ideas that are, at once, obvious and subtle. No "crash/boom" clichés here; instead, Baron manages to both carry any groove Frisell and Driscoll need and execute every cue with remarkable precision.

The best music for film also stands on its own, and Frisell's music for these three Buster Keaton films has always managed to do just that. But it's only when given the opportunity to watch the films and hear just how beautifully Frisell's music integrates with the visuals, that it becomes clear just how successful this 108 minutes of music truly is.

Together, Bill Frisell: Solos and Films of Buster Keaton: Music by Bill Frisell augment his recorded work on CD and, in addition to being revelatory, are just plain enjoyable to watch.

Tracks and Personnel

Bill Frisell: Solos

Personnel: Bill Frisell: guitar, loops.

Tracks: Keep Your Eyes Open; Throughout; Ron Carter; Boubacar; Shenandoah; Wildwood Flower; Poem for Eva. Bonus tracks: I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry; Masters of War; My Man's Gone Now.

DVD Details: Filmed on location at Berkeley Church, Toronto, Canada. Running time: 53 minutes. Director: Daniel Berman.

Films of Buster Keaton: Music by Bill Frisell

Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loops; Kermit Driscoll: acoustic and electric basses; Joey Baron: drums, percussion.

DVD Details: The High Sign (1921), running time: 20 minutes; One Week (1920), running time: 19 minutes; Go West (1925), running time: 69 minutes.



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