“The sound has to be in your imagination first and then you figure out a way to get it to come out; it’s usually something in my imagination I’m trying to get at and one thing leads to another.”
That’s how guitar virtuoso/composer Bill Frisell explains the germination of his creativity. It’s a process that has apparently served him well since he burst onto NYC’s downtown scene of the early Eighties with an utterly unique sound and distinctive sonic sensibility.
Down through the years, Frisell has shaped an oeuvre of remarkable diversity. Recognized initially by jazz aficionados, he’s certainly recorded his fair share of straight-up projects with the likes of jazz legends Elvin Jones, Charles Lloyd, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian. But he’s also well-known for his rich, earthy creations across country/Americana genres, working with notables like Jerry Douglas and Greg Leisz. Then there are the chamber ensembles that blend classical, jazz, and Americana, plus the original soundtracks for silent films. In fact, much of Frisell’s music has a sonically cinematic quality to it.
And let’s not forget the innumerable musicians over the years with whom, as a sideman, he’s added his singular sound. A short list includes Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, and Lucinda Williams, but there are many more. Frisell is also a Grammy winner, and he’s been named DownBeat magazine’s Guitarist of the Year 13 times since 1996.
We here in Austin have been quite fortunate to see him perform many times over the last two decades with a variety of different groups, usually at the intimate Continental Club. He’s scheduled to return there for two nights on Wed. & Thu., April 26 & 27.
Now comes a new documentary on this fabled guitarist and composer, from whence the opening quote was taken, Bill Frisell, A Portrait, from independent Australian filmmaker and musician Emma Franz. Directed, produced, shot, and edited by Franz over the course of several years in London, Italy, and the U.S., much of the film is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the modest and reticent Frisell at home, onstage, and in the studio, providing firsthand glimpses of his creative process.
The live performance sequences with the likes of pianist Jason Moran, the BBC Symphony Orchestra with maestro Michael Gibbs, and his longtime soul mates, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, are fascinating. Of particular poignancy is a segment capturing a portion of the last-ever performance by the beloved Paul Motian Trio with Frisell and saxman Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard.
As well, the film includes commentary about Frisell, the man and the musician, from a wide array of artists who’ve worked with him over the years, including Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Hal Willner, Nels Cline, John Zorn, Joey Baron, and the late Jim Hall.
“In his music,” explains Franz, “there is individuality, technique and simplicity, diversity, intensity and depth, and the sense of adventure of a child.” She continues, “Despite his success, Bill Frisell remains an eternal student – humble, open-minded, and constantly self-challenging. As such, he is a wonderful subject through which to explore some of the main themes that interest me as a director.”
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