Bill Frisell and “The Great Flood”
I feel late to the game with Bill Frisell, discovering him around the time of East/West and just after The Intercontinentals. We all have those moments of discovering something that is so beautiful and so complete (and even quite popular), but surprisingly had not crossed our radar. Yet I am so glad to finally encounter Frisell’s world (well, almost 10 years ago now). He is truly a national treasure. He is so distinctly American, creating music that is at once jazz, country, blues, and noise. His music is unique, yet incredible familiar, and at times sweetly dissonant (like no one else can be). It has me questioning so many musical preconceptions about how music can work, what makes something compelling, what can be a song, what is soloing, and more. I play a lot of bluegrass, and it is an intense musical world; with virtuosic players pushing the beat with drive, verve, and moonshine. There is nothing like traditional bluegrass music, and I love it. But with Frisell’s approach to music, when playing folk tunes, Bob Dylan songs, original country twang ditties, and old swing standards the beauty is so pronounced, so touching, melodic, a times so directionless yet with such inevitable and perfect forward movement. It is jazz, and so “not jazz” (which is actually very jazz).
Check out A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall from “West.” A 3-minute solo intro loosely referencing what is to come, then another 8-minutes (!!!!) of playing the melody. This track had me questioning my own musical sensibilities up and down, and backwards and forwards. The primacy of melody and playing the tune, and the making so much out of so little is so entwined in Frisell’s music, and I find it incredibly inspirational, as a musician, as a writer, and as a human.
Which leads me to last Saturday’s show at the Boulder Theater (7/19/2014). Playing the soundtrack to “The Great Flood,” a movie by Bill Morrison about the Mississippi River flood in the Spring of 1927, Frisell’s quartet included longtime collaborators Ron Miles (trumpet), Tony Scherr (guitar and bass), and Kenny Wollesen (on vibes and drums). The subject matter is certainly evocative of the recent Colorado flooding, and it was great to see several Lyons residents at the performance (which got hit with the heaviest of damage). The movie and music has been lauded extensively at this point, and appropriately so. It is an amazing piece of music and film. Here are a few of my most notable reflections from the show.
Bill Morrison’s fascination with deteriorating film (see Decasia) is fascinating in and of itself. Film quality that most documentarians might steer away from he instead puts on as a centerpiece, and the music made these quirky changes to the imagery that much more captivating, even haunting. Places where the film is really just pock-marked or blacked out in various places, blinking in and out, was noteworthy. Yet other times when the actual decay was happening around letters, buildings, people, cars, flowing water, it enhanced the cinematography, the subject matter, and the music in such a serendipitous way.
The music certainly referenced the movie, yet at times steered away from it. The moments of rhythmic synchronicity were beautiful, like the bass drum meeting many of the hits as people rolled gigantic square bales of cotton off of a steamer ship. These hits happened often enough to notice the rhythmic nature of the activity, but not directly following them gave a freedom both to the music and the film to follow their own inner pulses, and the players to follow their improvisations through. Also towards the end of the movie there is some wonderful footage of some evacuees playing guitar, and Frisell’s quartet plays music that simultaneously sounds nothing like what they might have been playing, yet rhythmically interlocks at unexpected times, and certainly evokes a jam session. The music highlights the mood of the moment, the joy and interplay that is happening, yet calling to fore the gravitas of the displaced nature of their situation, and the incredible chaos of a flood.
Many times the interplay between the onscreen activity and the music went both ways. Typically the music is supposed to highlight what is happening on screen, yet often the scenes accentuated what was happening musically. Frisell’s sense of dissonance is so beautiful, so compelling, and at times the band would sit on an odd interval, moving your attention to the band and pondering why this moment, glancing back and forth between the musicians and the screen trying to tease apart whether this is their musical ear, a poignant moment in the footage, or some of both. The movie and soundtrack are chock full of these moments, and while it is no longer on tour, you can rent or buy it on iTunes.
Lastly, there is so much Frisell on record, and each album has its own character and a myriad of attributes, yet I always come back to “Quartet” as a favorite. And as a rule I plan to adopt from here on out, go see Bill Frisell every chance you get.