Bill Frisell | San Francisco | Review

By: Eric Podolsky

Bill Frisell :: 04.21.12 :: Herbst Theatre :: San Francisco, CA

Bill Frisell Band by Eric Podolsky
You've got to hand it to Bill Frisell: the man is relentless in his pursuit of new forms of expression. That searching quality is woven into the fabric of Frisell's very music – the boundary-defying, shape-shifting brand of Americana-free-jazz that pours from his guitar is never content to be tied down, in structure or in genre. Frisell's newest project takes his music's rural, pastoral evocations to a new level by pairing it with the film The Great Flood by Bill Morrison, comprised entirely of original footage from the 1927 Mississippi River Disaster that displaced a million people. Experiencing a live soundtrack performance is always a treat, and Frisell's music is uniquely suited to the task, but pairing footage of a flooded rural South with Frisell's sympathetic, ethereal soundscapes resulted in true alchemy. This was a multimedia experience that startled with its sheer power, and inspired a welling of emotion in its audience that took many off guard.

From the start of the film, it was clear that there couldn't have been a more perfect accompaniment to such imagery than Frisell's delicate musical stylings. Frisell’s shimmering guitar playing evokes water flowing on its own, but when paired with Morrison's incredible footage of a flooded Mississippi it took on a deeply profound air. Together with Ron Miles on trumpet, Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, Frisell sculpted a half-composed, half-improvised journey back in time to a shadowy, half-forgotten place. The band's playing ebbed and flowed with the river onscreen, crafting a dreamy remembrance of an America that is long gone – the grainy, partially deteriorated footage of stranded Southerners floating by on bits of debris was accentuated by the band's sparse, melancholy phrasing, and took on a haunting, faded quality.

Bill Frisell
At times the experience was almost overwhelming – hypnotic close-ups of a raging, muddy Mississippi were made cathartic by the band's rising swells of gorgeous, shimmering accompaniment. You were in awe of the river, which was at once beautiful and sacred and terrible in its utter destruction. Somehow, the music conveyed all of this perfectly – muted, melancholy trumpet lines, minimalist percussion and liquid guitar licks rose like water, washing over us in a musical baptism of sorts.

The film was separated into vignettes which each focused on a different aspect of the flood. After the initial melancholy-tinged footage of the river rising and flooding, there was a short interlude featuring pages from the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog moving rapidly across the screen. The band gave this light-hearted display of commercial illustration some playful be-bop solos, and we were given a look at commercial landscape of the time before plunging back into the destruction of the flood. The next section featured a bluesy look at the massive population of displaced Southerners, mostly poor blacks going about the business of cleaning up with hardened resolve. Though the destruction of the rolling brown Mississippi onscreen contradicted the soothing, serene feeling which Frisell's music imbued into it, it still felt like the perfect accompaniment. Miles' trumpet often teased hints of folk melodies that rose out of the musical ether – an amazing shot of cattle being herded in water up to their necks was punctuated by the muted notes of "Old Man River" to a powerful effect.

Bill Frisell Band by Eric Podolsky
Amidst the roiling, emotional soundscape Frisell and co. laid over the film, there were isolated moments that proved to be the most moving: a black dog floating on a scrap of debris, shaking off water; a woman picking a flower while being escorted off a boat to dry land; whites boarding a train to safety, followed by a shot of blacks left behind in a massive refugee camp of crude tents (echoes of Katrina); white politicians clearly feigning interest in an ancient, wrinkled old black woman for the camera. All this was punctuated by the haunting, evocative, bluesy sounds of Frisell's band, making for an overall experience that was far more powerful than either the music or the film could be on their own.

The film ended with segments that showed how the Great Flood kick-started the Great Migration of blacks north to Chicago and other urban areas. Over footage from the 40s of urban slums and black musicians letting loose, the band launched into a rousing yet mournful full-on version of "Old Man River," almost dirge-like in tempo but uplifting in feel. This finale managed to encapsulate the entire African-American experience – tragic yet full of resolve and eternal hope. The most striking aspect of this performance was the sheer amount of thoughts and feelings and that were evoked in its audience solely through imagery and music – it was certainly the most a concert had made me feel in as long as I can remember. We walked out of the theatre somewhat drained by the experience, trying to make sense of the welling of emotion the show had inspired in us, in awe of Frisell's masterful treatment of the material. The man truly has some kind of spiritual connection to the rural South, and is able to touch the faded heart of its past with his guitar in a way that few can.

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[Published on: 5/1/12]

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