In 1998, guitarist and composer Bill Frisell sought to create a large-scale musical statement that would encompass his increasingly diverse range of interests and styles: the sweeping pastoralism of lost Americana; a cinematic sense of orchestration; Nashville country and bluegrass; the raw qualities of distortion, tape loops, and electronics; skillful yet unconventional writing for horns; and, of course, the melodic and improvisational jazz guitar mastery for which he first gained attention. The Walker Art Center offered the commissioning funds, rehearsal time, and a presenting platform that would allow him to realize this ambition. The resulting suite of eighteen compositions for septet premiered at the Walker in November 1999 (subsequently titled Blues Dream and released by Nonesuch in 2001), and constituted both a summation of his work to that point and the culmination of his long-standing relationship with this institution.
Frisell’s appearances from 1986 to 2002 reflect many of the contours of this irrepressibly curious musician’s evolution. Noted for his signature atmospheric guitar sound, Frisell has an inclusive musical sensibility that renders the labels jazz, rock, bluegrass, experimental, and blues music meaningless. At the time of his first Walker performance in 1986, he was deeply immersed in the art of jazz guitar and heavily influenced by the sophisticated harmonic approach of master jazz guitarist Jim Hall. Their rare duo concert was the realization of a dream for both Frisell and local audiences. In the following years, he collaborated with composer and saxophonist John Zorn for shows that included Zorn’s piece Godard/Spillane and a performance by the avantrock group Naked City. These projects reflected Zorn’s quick-cut collage aesthetic as well as the general eclecticism of New York’s 1980s downtown scene in which an increasingly confident, yet ever-modest Frisell was becoming an iconic force.
His regard for cinema and melancholic Americana (as well as his understated sense of humor) never rested too far below the surface. It emerged full blown in his live scores for film, including his settings for a trio of Buster Keaton movies, Go West, One Week, and The High Sign. In the mid-1990s, Frisell became enraptured with the complexity, virtuosity, and easy freedom of bluegrass and Nashville music, resulting in an invitation to bassist Victor Krauss and dobro master Jerry Douglas to join him in the recording of Nashville, which the trio performed at the Walker in 1997.
Frisell’s interest in global rhythms and the diverse traditions of many non-Western musical idioms was reflected in a group he dubbed the Intercontinentals, which performed one of its earliest live concerts as part of the Walker’s 2002 cross-cultural music series Longitude/Amplitude. With collaborations and influences that range from comic artist Jim Woodring to musicians Marianne Faithfull and Elvis Costello to film director Gus Van Sant, Frisell has created an impressive canon of musical metaphors that continues to grow in its reach and significance.
- John L. Walters, The Guardian (London), April 13, 2001. In a review of Blues Dream, he says of Frisell: “His appeal goes deeper and wider than mere jazz brilliance. His tone infiltrates the environment and catches your ear … complex, rich, full of layers … the touch and timbre adds a dimension of experience and authority that few musicians deliver with such consistency.”
- The performance of the Walker-commissioned Godard/Spillane featured Zorn, Frisell, Jim Staley, Christian Marclay, Wayne Horvitz, David Weinstein, Carol Emmanuel, Bobby Previte, and Arto Lindsay.
- With Zorn, Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz, and Joey Baron.
- Copresented with Northrop Auditorium.
Philip Bither, “Bill Frisell,” from Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 226.