Disfarmer

Year Released: 
2009
Bill Frisell - electric and acoustic guitars, loops, music boxes
Greg Leisz - steel guitars, mandolin
Jenny Scheinman - violin
Viktor Krauss - bass
Produced by Lee Townsend
 
Nonesuch Records

Recording and Mixing Engineer: Tucker Martine
Mastering Engineer: Greg Calbi
Recorded at Avast Studio, Seattle (February, '08) and Sound Emporium, Nashville (May, '08)
Mixed at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley
Mastered at Sterling Sound, New York City
Production assistance: Adam Blomberg
Assistant engineers: Taylor Pollert, Jesse Nichols and Adam Munoz
Design by Evan Gaffney
Photographs on booklet back, inlay and opposite page by Michael Wilson
All other photographs by Mike Disfarmer

Song List:  

1. Disfarmer Theme
2. Lonely Man
3. Lost, Night
4. Farmer
5. Focus
6. Peter Miller's Discovery
7. That's Alright, Mama
8. Little Girl
9. Little Boy
10. No One Gets In
11. Lovesick Blues
12. I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)
13. Shutter, Dream
14. Exposed
15. The Wizard
16. Think
17. Drink
18. Play
19. I Am Not a Farmer
20. Small Town
21. Arkansas (Part 1)
22. Arkansas (Part 2)
23. Arkansas (Part 3)
24. Lost Again, Dark
25. Natural Light
26. Did You See Him?
TRT 1:11:28

All compositions by Bill Frisell (Friz-Tone Music/BMI) except:
"That's Alright, Mama" by Arthur Crudup (Unichappell Music Inc./BMI)
"Lovesick Blues" by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills (EMI Mills Music/ASCAP)
"I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" by Hank Williams Sr. (Sony/Acuff Rose Music/BMI)
"Shutter, Dream" by Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman and Viktor Krauss (Friz-Tone Music/Capsong/Bug Music/Split Window Music/BMI and Taylor Peak Music/ASCAP)
"Arkansas" is based on the song "Arkansas Traveler" by Colonel Sanford C. 'Sandy' Faulkner

REVIEWS
"Like David Lynch, postjazz guitarist Bill Frisell has a knack for insinuating an odd haze around the most wholesome aspects of Americana. Disfarmer, named after the cranky Arkansas photographer who created gripping images of his neighbors, finds Frisell teamed with steel guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman and bassist Viktor Krauss for a set of 26 evocative miniatures. Each one flits by like a half-remembered dream, yet paradoxically their sum amounts to one of Frisell's loveliest, most consistently affecting recent creations." - Steve Smith, Time
Out
, New York

"The music of omnivorous guitarist Bill Frisell reflects an eclectic range of influences .... On "Disfarmer," he draws inspiration from the Depression-era portraits of little-known Arkansas photographer Michael Disfarmer. The result is a provocative soundscape that features a mixture of acoustic and electric guitars.... Creatively restless, Frisell is best suited for exploring vast territory and responding with imaginative integrity, which is evidenced on "Disfarmer." - Dan Ouellette, Billboard

"Exquisite." - Independent on Sunday

"Frisell's filmic themes summon up the ghosts of a lost America. The results are gently beautiful." The Times

"The tunes prove so hauntingly evocative that they conjure the spirits of long-vanished people and places without the need for visual accompaniment." - Metro

"The hymns and hoedowns of 'Disfarmer' are both affectionate and atmospheric." - Daily Telegraph

"You practically feel the Arkansas soil slipping through your fingers."- The Sun
 
NPR.org, July 13, 2009 -
This album is called Disfarmer, and it's by Bill Frisell. Frisell, you may know: He's a guitar tactician with warmth and a composer of unclassifiable songs. As a solo artist, Frisell is known largely for drawing upon the affects of Americana ‹ folk, country and western, what-have-you ‹ in ways you wouldn't immediately call jazz, but which draw from jazz in a way that implies no better descriptor.

But who, or what for that matter, is Disfarmer?

Mike Disfarmer was born Michael Meyers in 1884, the sixth of seven children in a family of German immigrant farmers in Arkansas. As he grew older, he came to reject both his family and its agrarian lifestyle. (A tornado, he once claimed, uprooted him from his birth parents and blew him into the Meyers household.) So he chose a new surname. Upon learning, somewhat incorrectly, that the German word "meyer" translated to "farmer" in English, he reasoned that he could only be called an anti-farmer, or Disfarmer.

In other words, Disfarmer was something of an eccentric, and a recluse to boot. But he was also an artist: Disfarmer ran a portrait photography studio in rural Heber Springs, Ark. ‹ the only such enterprise for miles around.

Thousands of black-and-white images captured his fellow townspeople from the years preceding the Great Depression to the period following WWII. And something about the solemn, stark plainness to his style lent his subjects an unexpected intimacy, ensuring his legacy as one of America's great outsider artists.

Disfarmer died in 1959, but his photographs were eventually rediscovered, exhibited and anthologized. The candor of those images would be a natural counterpart to the post-Americana music of Bill Frisell ‹ so thought Chuck Helm, Director of the Performing Arts at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. Sure enough, when Helm introduced Frisell to Disfarmer's oeuvre, the guitarist went on to create a touring multimedia work, scoring a slideshow of Disfarmer images.

The recording of that music, on Frisell's latest album Disfarmer, is what you can hear here in its entirety. It's filled with the sounds of a 21st-century string band: Greg Leisz's mandolin and pedal-steel atmospherics, Jenny Scheinman's sundry fiddle textures, Viktor Krauss' rich acoustic bass plucking. And then there's Frisell, the quiet tactician of the electric guitar, who engineers loops and subtle distortions with phrasing you never knew you were expecting.

There are evocative original themes and motifs here, surrounded by backgrounds sounding distant echoes of country, bluegrass and old-time mountain music. There's also a handful of carefully selected covers, among them Hank Williams' lament "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)"

and Arthur Crudup's blues song "That's Alright, Mama," a hit rockabilly vehicle for Elvis Presley. It's a record alternately spare and full, languid and rollicking, pastoral and urbanely produced.
And it's all in service to the work of the enigmatic Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer.

"What was he thinking?" Frisell asks. "What did he see? We'll never know, but as I write the music, I'd like to imagine it coming from his point of view. The sound of him looking through the lens."
 
The Houston Chronicle, August 2, 2009 Sunday
By Andrew Dansby

4 STARS
Like Bill Frisell, I'd not heard of Mike Disfarmer even though I'd seen his work. Disfarmer, who died in 1959, was a weird genius of photography who took haunting, beautiful and mysterious portraits of the folks in his hometown of Heber Springs, Ark. Disfarmer's photos tipped the paper boat into the water for the always innovative guitarist Frisell, but Disfarmer is more than a soundtrack to a collection of photos. Frisell took a road trip from North Carolina to Arkansas to initiate the project. In both song selection and instrumentation the album reflects that movement. Among the 26 compositions are three interpretations of well-known songs - That's Alright, Mama, Lovesick Blues and I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You) - that suggest he stopped at some music landmarks along the way.

But the majority of these songs, with titles like Farmer, Little Girl and Little Boy, were inspired by Disfarmer and/or his subjects. Not only is there a continuity in Disfarmer's work (the crisp black-and-white detail, the stillness of the subjects) but there's also great range. Similarly Frisell's pieces flow together despite great variance in their tones. Some, like the opening Disfarmer's Theme, reflect the stoic darkness portrayed in the photos while others are more colorful. The lightness Jenny Scheinman's pizzicato violin plucking on Lost, Night are immersed in some more ominous tones produced by Frisell and steel guitarist Greg Leisz. Together, they give the song a gorgeous complexity.

I'm Not a Farmer has a sweeping country feel, tinged with resignation. It's quickly followed by the intimate, acoustically picked Small Town, a short composition that suggests a yearning to get outside its titular subject.
American roots music is not new terrain for Frisell. He's also no stranger to making music tied to a visual medium (he's done recordings to accompany Buster Keaton films). Disfarmer, though, is a particularly beautiful suite of music. Frisell's pacing is magnificent, and the album sweeps along with purpose like a gorgeous, spacious epic. It is full of sounds that suggest settings and characters, including the mysterious eccentric who inspired the recording.
 
NPR.org, August 16, 2009
click here to hear the interview

Mike Disfarmer snapped portraits of anyone and everyone in the small town of Heber Springs, Ark. The photos spanned a period from the Great Depression through World War II. The black and white pictures ranged from the intent stares of a set of twins in tight curls and rumpled housecoats to a cocksure G.I. with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip.

Guitarist Bill Frisell composed a series of musical vignettes based on Disfarmer's work for a new album appropriately called Disfarmer.

"At first I was attracted to the photos themselves, but then there's this whole story that starts to emerge of the man himself," Frisell says. "He was pretty much unknown while he was alive. And 20 years later, the photos are uncovered and [Disfarmer is] suddenly thought of as a genius."

Frisell drove to Heber Springs, Ark., where Disfarmer took the photographs. He wanted to meet people who lived there and happened to get lucky when he met Tom Olmstead, the town's funeral director. Olmstead not only had his picture taken by Disfarmer as a boy, but he and his father discovered Disfarmer's body after the photographer died. Olmstead provided Frisell with a wealth of stories.

Mike Disfarmer was born Mike Meyers. Frisell tells host Guy Raz that Disfarmer mistakenly thought that "Meyers" meant "farmer."

"He was trying to disassociate himself with his family and the community around there. So he decided to be Disfarmer," Frisell says. "You can tell he was a pretty contrary person."

Disfarmer was rude to the people he photographed and made them feel uncomfortable, but Frisell says that wasn't his aim. He was more interested in the photo itself.

"People weren't really posing. They never really knew when the photo was going to be taken," Frisell says. "In that way you get this really honest picture of those folks."
 
Sonic Boomers, September 11, 2009
By Phil Gallo

The peppiest original on Bill Frisell’s work devoted to a mysterious Arkansas photographer is titled “Natural Light.” It’s a moment of controlled joy -- an artist finding the right split second to capture life -- and as an audio interpreter of a visual art, Frisell has everything in proper focus on Disfarmer.

Arkansas portrait photographer Mike Meyers chose the name Disfarmer at the age of 55 to break free of his family’s dairy operation, believing he was superior to the townsfolk of Heber Springs, Ark., that he photographed in his downtown studio during the years of World War II. Guitarist Bill Frisell, whose last 15 albums belie his music’s rural roots, was invited to create a musical project, which he interpreted as an opportunity to compose from the photographer’s point of view.

The result is a song cycle with a careful, film-score construction. There’s an overriding pensiveness, moments of cheerfulness and the occasional blast of a carefree spirit. The music, performed with Greg Leisz on steel guitar and mandolin, violinist Jenny Scheinman and bassist Viktor Krauss, is highly impressionistic, a striking balance of sepia-toned light and dark. Textured interplay is rich and striking throughout, hitting its apex on “Peter Miller’s Discovery.”  Miller, an attorney in Arkansas and a former newspaper editor, has spearheaded the effort over the last 15 years to recognize Disfarmer’s work as fine art.

Mystery surrounded Disfarmer. He never socialized, his lone interaction coming during photo sessions that often required subjects to sit for an hour as he adjusted the amount of natural light in the room. The portraits are intimate and detailed, a trait Frisell has translated in the music.

Mystery and distance color the snail-paced “Little Boy;” a music box, harmonics and upright bass unfold on “Shutter, Dream” as an image would on photo paper in the darkroom. “I am Not a Farmer,” upright in its defiant tone, is a lyrical ballad modeled on mountain story songs that reveals the erosion behind the human facade. As the song progresses, Scheinman’s violin adds streaks of darkness with the slightest bit of dissonance to contrast Frisell’s carefully picked lines. Of the 26 songs, it’s the true musical portrait.

Frisell includes nods to Elvis Presley (Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama”) and Hank Williams (“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” and “Lovesick Blues”) that provide an air of familiarity, a technique he used on “History, Mystery” with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” the traditional numbers on “The Willies” and songs by Williams and George Gershwin on “Ghost Town.”

Disfarmer’s booklet includes six of his photographs. While they share similarities in subject matter and the era with the renowned  Walker Evans, Disfarmer operated in a  far more controlled environment in which the subjects were alone against bare backdrops. Some of his subjects revel in the opportunity to be shot and others display blank stares and disgruntled looks.

Frisell clearly felt a kinship with Disfarmer’s work, which he echoes with numbers that alternate between atmospherics and actual verse-chorus-verse songs. His last record, 2008’s History, Mystery, was equally suite-like but its sources of inspiration were far wider. Focused on creating a musical portrait from books, photos and his own drive from North Carolina to Heber Springs, Frisell has created a moving work of tremendous intimacy and control.
 
CHRISTIAN SICENCE MONITOR
By Norman Weinstein

"Disfarmer" (Nonesuch) is a tour de force of jazz creativity by Bill Frisell. Inspired by the stark photography of Mike Disfarmer that captured the spirit of "American Gothic" in the Ozarks of the late 1930s and early '40s, Frisell uses a variety of electric and acoustic guitars and electronic effects to create a profoundly eerie merger of old-timey mountain music and jazz. Among his cocreators are Greg Leisz on steel guitar and mandolin, bassist Viktor Krauss, and the versatile violinist Jenny Scheinman. Listen carefully to Scheinman's interplay with Frisell and you'll hear haunting echoes of East European folk laments. Retro-folk futurism with a global reach?
 
fROOTS, October 2009
There are only so many superlatives that one can hep on (loosely speaking) jazz guitarist Bill Frisell's forays into the ghosts of Americana, and this one - a set inspired by the images of wartime rural photographer Mike Disfarmer - deservers the lot. The usual exemplary accompanying crew of Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinmann & Viktor Krauss are all in attendance. 'Sublime' will do for starters.