If you are a professional musician of some name, who hasn’t played with Bill Frisell, you’re probably pretty boring. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with category. Frisell is best known as a jazz artist, but he can play anything with anyone, including classical string music, experimental hardcore, free improv, folk, roots, blues, and country. He always fits in, yet he always sounds like himself. Emma Franz profiles the superhumanly busy guitarist in Bill Frisell: A Portrait (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Nashville Film Festival.
Fortunately, Franz talks to a small army of famous musicians who have played with Frisell, because he is not the type to sing his own praises. It is doubly fortuitous, considering two of his most important colleagues are no longer with us. The late, great Jim Hall, with whom he studied and later recorded with as a duo, argues he might have influenced Frisell initially, but in later years, Hall was influenced by Frisell. Similarly, the late and equally great Paul Motian reminisces about the formation of his classic trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano. It is hard to believe they are both gone, but their contributions to Franz’s film provide a nice way to remember them.
Of course, they are not the only musicians offering testimonials. We also hear from Lovano, Ron Carter, John Abercrombie, Jason Moran, John Zorn, Nels Cline, Jack DeJohnette, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul Simon. More importantly, we get to hear him perform in a variety of contexts, including the Motian-Lovano trio, a new trio with Jason Moran, and the avant-garde chamber ensemble, the 858 Quartet. Some of the music swings way harder than you might expect, while some is just arrestingly beautiful, but it is always interesting.
On the other hand, you might have to be a bit of guitar nut to appreciate the countless instruments Frisell show-and-tells for Franz, many of which were hand-painted by relatively well-known artists. Regardless, Frisell’s aw-shucks attitude wears well over time. In fact, he is extraordinarily modest for a man who is probably called a genius several times a day.
Arguably, Nashville is the perfect place to screen Frisell’s documentary. Sure, it is known as a country town, but he has done that too. However, the Nashville studio warriors should be able to relate. They can play anything, anywhere, at any time, as long as the pay is decent. They are also sure to be familiar with at least some of Frisell’s voluminous recorded output. For those coming in cold, Franz and company convincingly establish Frisell’s significance in music today, across genre boundaries, whereas everyone should enjoy the generous musical selections. Highly recommended, Bill Frisell: A Portrait screens Monday (4/24) and Tuesday (4/25) at this year’s Nashville Film Festival.