Guitarist Bill Frisell is widely known for his genre-straddling collaborations with some of the biggest names in the popular, jazz, and classical worlds: Bono, Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Rickie Lee Jones, John Zorn, the Los Angeles Philharmonic – just to name a fragmentary few.
But for his latest album, the Grammy-winning Seattle-based musician chose to embark on a time- and idiom-straddling collaboration with an almost forgotten, long-deceased photographer from Arkansas.
“I remember when I first saw those photos, I’d never seen anything quite like that and it seemed like a great thing to build a project around,” said Frisell, speaking about the iconic portraits created in the 1940s and 50s by reclusive photographer Mike Disfarmer. “I really wanted to try through music to imagine what the person (being photographed by Disfarmer) was thinking, and what was going through Disfarmer’s mind when he was shooting those photographs in that little town in Arkansas.”
The project is the latest in a career-long series of creative leaps for Frisell, a musician’s musician whom Spin Magazine has called “a guitar genius.” Although few dare attempt to corral Frisell’s chameleon-like musical voice into a single genre, he has been well-known among jazz aficionados for years, ever since he released a trio of records on the art-music label ECM in the 1980s. Most of Frisell’s best recorded work has been in instrumental ensembles – effectively barring him from the radio airwaves, and further pigeonholing him into the “jazz” bin.
But as “Disfarmer” makes perfectly clear, Frisell’s true inspiration comes from the deepest roots of American traditional music: the reverent hymns (one track on “Disfarmer” features an echo of the children’s song, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”), the doleful work-songs, and the Americanized folk strains from the old country.
In his hands, this music becomes not only sound, but landscape: a verdant and steamy place where oddity and beauty stand soul-bare side by side.
In this sense, Frisell found a surprisingly kindred artistic sensibility in the work of Disfarmer, who died in 1959 after spending his life photographing the residents of his hometown of Heber Springs, Ark.
Known as an eccentric during his lifetime – local children feared him, and his photo subjects remarked on his abrasive professional demeanor – Disfarmer produced a vast body of work, but was completely unknown outside his hometown until more than 30 (?) years after his death.
About ten years ago, Frisell was introduced to Disfarmer’s striking photographs by Charles Helm, the programming director at the Wexner Center for the Performing Arts in Columbus, Oh. It was actually Helm who suggested that Frisell consider creating music in response to the photographs. The project initially faltered, but several years later – after Disfarmer’s work had earned wider recognition in the art world through the publication of several books and a critically acclaimed showing in New York City – Frisell decided to give it a shot.
The Disfarmer Project ultimately debuted in 2007 at the Wexner Center, in a multimedia presentation that featured his four-piece band performing as a series of Disfarmer’s images was projected on screens above the stage. Since then, he has presented the Disfarmer Project only about ten times around the country.
In some of those first performances, the band didn’t perform with the images. But Frisell said those concerts felt wrong to him.
“In writing this music, I wasn’t trying to represent the photographs; I didn’t want the music to describe anything in particular,” said Frisell. “But when we played without the images, it was really weird, it felt like it wasn’t right. There’s definitely something happening when we’re playing with the images; they really affect us.” (Click here to visit a page where you can hear samples of music from the Disfarmer Project)
Frisell and his band will present the full, multimedia Disfarmer Project at the University Theatre next Wednesday. It will be Frisell’s first appearance in Missoula; and to hear him tell it, it may be his last time presenting the Disfarmer Project in this area.
“It’s not really a touring show; so far it’s been a few presentations of (the Disfarmer Project) here and there,” said Frisell. “It’s just sort of special cases.”
Bill Frisell will present his Disfarmer Project on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. at the University Theater in Missoula. Tickets are $32 at all Griztix outlets and Rockin Rudy’s.