Jazz innovator Bill Frisell experiments with Americana in Walker show

October 27, 2007
By Dan Emerson

Over the past 20 years, it's doubtful any visiting artist has performed more times at the Walker Art Center than Seattle-based guitarist and composer Bill Frisell. Rather than wearing out his welcome, Frisell's frequent appearances have only increased his popularity with Twin Cities music lovers, as evidenced by his two sold-out shows Saturday night at the Walker.

Frisell and his more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts trio performed new compositions and new arrangements of old songs, inspired by 1940s- and '50s-vintage portraits of the residents of Heber Springs, Ark., shot by "outsider" photographer Mike Disfarmer.

Disfarmer's compelling portraits of townspeople living a hardscrabble, rural existence were projected on a backdrop behind the musicians. The lack of information about each subject - names, occupations, etc. - effectively drew in the audience. While mostly unremarkable, the sunburned, often rough-hewn faces captured in the photos invited viewers to wonder about the lives behind those photographs.

Frisell, steel-guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz and violinist Jenny Scheinman played not only new music but also a few anthems of prerock-era America that fit the period. They included Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow.'' Another piece alluded to the era's epic birth of rock 'n' roll: bluesman Arthur Crudup's "That's Alright," later recorded by a skinny would-be star from Memphis, Elvis Presley.

There also were more obscure pieces, including the ancient folk-tune "Pretty Polly," the workingman's tale "John Hardy" and guitarist Charlie Christian's early-'40s big-band piece "Benny's Bugle."

The Walker-commissioned music was characteristic of Frisell's atmospheric sound. While some guitar heroes wield the instrument as if it were a machine gun, firing torrents of fast, flashy licks, Frisell uses his like a paintbrush, producing gentle swells of sound that wash over the audience and effectively create various moods.

Along with his Telecaster, the primary tool he uses to produce his trademark sound is a volume pedal. Rather than picking a string and having the sound quickly fade, he can use the pedal to make each note become fuller - similar to the sounds made by horn players.

He also has a high degree of technical skill in using effects such as digital delay and repeating sound loops, when a busier, more complex sound seems appropriate.

Scheinman also occasionally used a volume pedal to shape the tones produced by her violin, which was plugged into a Fender guitar amp. Leisz's eloquent pedal-steel and lap-steel swells were a perfect match for Frisell's sound.

In the original pieces, there frequently were shifting moods contained within a single composition. One piece began on a somber, minor-key note and morphed into a medium-tempo melody that fell somewhere between a Saturday night hoedown and a Sunday morning church service - iconic images of life in Heber Springs, Ark., and a thousand other American small towns.