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
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