Live Review, 4/21/2012: Bill Frisell and the Enduring American Spirit
One of the most gratifying developments in all American music has been innovative jazz guitarist Bill Frisell's exploration of this country's folk, country, and early blues traditions. Saturday night at the Herbst Theatre, Frisell -- in collaboration with collagist filmmaker Bill Morrison -- presented The Great Flood, a 90-minute suite of elegiac Americana jazz on the subject of the Mississippi flood of 1927. As with his works inspired by photographer Mike Disfarmer, and his soundtracks for Buster Keaton films, Frisell demonstrated great sensitivity to these images of the long-gone past, honoring them with the full power of one of our great composers and stylists.
As far back as 1990, Frisell struck a hopalong groove in between squalls of thrash and funk on his John Zorn collaboration "Hard Plains Drifter," but it wasn't until 1993's spectacular Have a Little Faith LP that this interest fully bloomed. Frisell's covers of John Sousa, Bob Dylan, Madonna, and Aaron Copeland revealed all four as the fruits of one plant. Since then, Frisell has reached back further, to dustier tunes, to the bedrock and hardtack of American song: "Shenandoah," "Wildwood Flower," "Goodnight, Irene," "Lovesick Blues."
Both interpretations of and meditations upon a past that we can't fully know, but which still shapes us in all matters off life and music, Frisell's explorations of these familiar themes -- and his own new compositions in their vein, like the Copeland-meets-Nashville classic "The Pioneers" -- are unfailingly moving, especially as they never settle into mere prettiness or nostalgia. Instead, they are steeped in the true majesty and loss from which nostalgia is derived.
Like rust on once grand machines, touches of distortion and atonality corrode these folk melodies, our appreciation of them today informed by all that they've been through and how they've survived.
That goes for the images in Morrison's film as well.
The feeling stirred in me by this great, gently haunted music is something like that stirred by the coda to Copeland's "Appalachian Spring": a sense that the America spirit still endures, as a wistful, forward-looking slip rooted in the deep past, one that still sings despite our succession of hard times, tragedies, and all the cruelties and stupidities done in its name.
In "The Great Flood," we hear that spirit most in Ron Miles' cornet. Over the steady simmer of Frisell, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and bass and guitar man Tony Scherr, Miles airs plaintive lines of folk melody, simple and repeating, the statements of an everyman rather than a town crier. (The effect -- a looping, placid horn over a moody, shifting back-up -- is something like a downhome version of what Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis pulled on "Nefertiti.") At other times, Miles engages in quick bursts of muted call and response -- moments that suggest the power of community to get us through not just the 1927 flood, but all the other disasters in life. The effect is stirring: That spirit is resilient, even when waterlogged.
Morrison's film is as impressionistic as documentary footage gets. There's stately from-the-air surveys of the flood's damage; there are flooded downtowns, where people and dogs wait on roofs; there's arresting footage of hardworking black men shoring up levees with sandbags; there's thrilling scenes of dancers in some juke joint, their passionate gyrations a reminder that, yeah, jitterbugging was dangerous.