Music: Bill Frisell

Feb 1, 2010 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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It's hard to believe, but when I reach the extraordinarily prolific master guitarist Bill Frisell at an apartment he's renting in the beautiful, ancient town of Orvieto, Italy, two days before Christmas, he hasn't been working feverishly every second since he arrived in Italy nearly a month ago, and he doesn't have five projects in different stages of completion. Okay, after New Year's is a different story. But right now he's kicking back, relaxing, writing some music at his leisure and anticipating just a single gig in Italy with his “mentor and hero,” jazz guitar great Jim Hall.

Frisell and I have three projects to talk about, however: His exceptional recent album on Nonesuch, Disfarmer, which may be his strongest work yet in the Americana-folk-jazz vein he has mined so successfully from time to time (amidst countless other disparate projects); a superb DVD shot in 2004 (but released recently) called Solos; and finalmente, as they'd say in Orvieto, a DVD of three Buster Keaton silent shorts for which Frisell's mid-'90s trio supplied the soundtrack — the music came out on CD in 1995, but not the films-with-music. So all in all, it's quite a bonanza for Frisell fans.

Bill Frisell's latest album, <i>Disfarmer</i>, was inspired by the works of Depression-era photographer Mike Disfarmer

Bill Frisell's latest album, Disfarmer, was inspired by the works of Depression-era photographer Mike Disfarmer

Actually, Disfarmer has a slight connection to the Keaton project in the sense that it is music inspired by visuals (in part): Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) was a photographer who captured the plain folks who lived in his community of Heber Springs, Ark., from the Depression era into the 1950s. Disfarmer was an odd duck: His actual last name was Myers, but he chose “Disfarmer” as a sort of dig against the principal livelihood of the people he lived around. And though one might think a portrait photographer would need to be a social fellow to loosen up his subjects, Disfarmer was famously cold, aloof, even misanthropic — he apparently made many of the people he photographed quite uncomfortable, yet they were fascinated by him, and he did do outstanding work. Rediscovered in the '70s, when many new negatives of his work came to light, Disfarmer's work is now shown in museums around the world.

Frisell's Disfarmer was inspired by the portraits the photographer took and by Disfarmer's “bizarre life,” as the guitarist puts it in the liner notes to the CD. Early on, Frisell and his wife went on a driving trip across the South to Heber Springs so he could “smell the air, talk to some people, taste the food, so the music wouldn't be coming only from what I had seen or read in a book.” (It was an exhibit of Disfarmer's photos at the Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, that provided the original impetus for Frisell to musically explore Disfarmer's work and life.) The setting and subject informed the style of music that Frisell composed for the project — this is rural America in the first half of the 20th century — so he wrote a number of pieces and then brought in two of his favorite collaborators: violinist Jenny Scheinman and steel guitar, Dobro and mandolin specialist Greg Leisz. The trio developed the music together and played it at the Wexner Center, “and when we started doing gigs,” Frisell says, “we actually had one not far from Heber Springs, and we got there early enough that the day of the gig Jenny and Greg and I went to the town and hung out for a while.”

Frisell says that even on conceptual pieces likes these, he rarely articulates his intentions. “It's mostly playing. I don't give them much verbal information. The reason I love to play with them is because I can trust their instincts. We have this understanding where we don't have to figure things out so I can write something on paper and then they bring so much to it — I'm counting on them to do something with whatever I present to them. After awhile, it's become more and more blurred about what's specified and what's not. There are plenty of things that are written out, but the ideas are also a sort of springboard, so what is interesting is getting from one specific thing to another specific thing; finding our way from one place to another. You kind of know where you're going, but you jump off into the unknown along the way.”

The Disfarmer CD comprises 26 mostly short tracks. “There are three or four themes throughout the whole album, and most of the music is generated from those few little melodies,” Frisell says. “So there are a lot of variations on those themes.” Additionally, there are instrumental versions of three cover tunes from the early days of country music: Arthur Crudup's “That's Alright, Mama,” and Hank Williams' “Lovesick Blues” and “I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You).” Frisell comments, “I used the excuse of thinking about what they might have been hearing on the radio [during Disfarmer's lifetime].”

Sessions for Disfarmer took place in two different studios, three months apart for four days each time: at Avast Studio in Seattle (where Frisell lives) in February 2008, and Sound Emporium in Nashville in May of that year. Lee Townsend, who has produced most (but not all) of Frisell's albums since the mid-'80s, was once again at the helm; Tucker Martine engineered and later mixed it in Fantasy Studios' “D” room in Berkeley, Calif.

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