“Taking fragments of obscure vinyl records as a launching point, the (orchestra) traverses a landscape that passes, in an almost hallucinatory way, through myriad styles. A special pleasure is the lush yet piquant string arrangements … this is an utterly gorgeous and captivating disc.” —Billboard
The Walker Art Center, Northrop Jazz Season, and Cedar Cultural Center present a rare live performance of Unspeakable, the 2005 Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, by Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable Orchestra with Hal Willner at 6 and 8:30 pm Sunday, September 25, in the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Theater. Unspeakable pairs the spellbinding innovation of guitarist/composer Frisell and producer/turntablist Willner, long-time Saturday Night Live music supervisor and record-producing auteur (Stay Awake, Amarcord Nino Rota). They are joined by core artists from that recording: Tony Scherr (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), and Hank Roberts (cello). Using the album’s ecstatic mix of orchestral and digital soundscapes as a touchstone, the all-star band’s live performances of Unspeakable give the acclaimed recording a fresh life of its own.
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Born in Baltimore, Frisell studied music at the University of Northern Colorado before attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied with John Damian, Herb Pomeroy, and Michael Gibbs. In 1978, Frisell spent a year in Belgium during which time he concentrated on writing music, touring with Michael Gibbs, and recording for the first time with German bassist Eberhard Weber. After living in New York for 10 years, he is currently based in Seattle.
In 1997 Nonesuch released Frisell’s acclaimed Nashville. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Wayne Horvitz with members of Allison Krauss’ Union Station band (mandolin player Adam Steffey and banjo player Ron Block), the project also features Krauss’ brother and Lyle Lovett’s bass player Viktor Krauss, dobro great Jerry Douglas, vocalist Robin Holcomb, and Pat Bergeson, harmonica.
On Gone, Just Like A Train (1998), an exceptionally melodic and rhythmically vital instrumental collection of original compositions, Frisell is joined by Viktor Krauss, and by Jim Keltner, all-star drummer of choice for Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, T-Bone Burnett, George Harrison, John Lennon, and The Traveling Wilburys. Produced by Lee Townsend, the album has proved to be one of Frisell’s most celebrated and popular to date.
Good Dog, Happy Man brims full of Frisell’s shimmering original compositions. Here he is reunited with the Gone, Just Like a Train rhythm section of Viktor Krauss on bass and Jim Keltner on drums and joined by Wayne Horvitz on Hammond B3 organ, multi-instrumentalist/slide guitarist Greg Leisz (known for his work with Joni Mitchell, K.D. Lang, Emmy Lou Harris, Beck, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others) plus special guest Ry Cooder on the traditional folk song Shenendoah.
Frisell’s relationship with the Walker can be traced back to 1986 when he performed with Jim Hall. In addition to return performances in 1988, 1989, 1997, 2002, and the grand opening celebration of the William and Nadine McGuire Theater in April of this year, he performed in The Films of Buster Keaton with Bill Frisell in 1995, co-presented with Northrop Auditorium, and presented the world premiere of Walker-commissioned works with his septet in 1999.
In 1999, the Walker commissioned Frisell to write a suite of pieces for his seven-piece band. Following the premiere performance at the Walker, the material was released on Frisell’s acclaimed CD Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001), featuring the New Quartet (Greg Leisz, David Piltch, and Kenny Wollesen) and a horn section of Ron Miles (trumpet), Billy Drewes (alto saxophone), and Curtis Fowlkes (trombone). In many ways it represented a culmination of the strands running through many of Frisell’s recordings, combining the homespun lyricism of Good Dog, Happy Man; Gone, Just Like a Train; and Nashville with the orchestral timbres of Quartet and the expanded tonal palette and harmonic sophistication afforded by a larger group.
Frisell’s other recent projects include the Burt Bacharach/Elvis Costello CD, The Sweetest Punch, on Decca, which features Frisell’s arrangements of the 12 tunes Costello and Bacharach recorded on Painted From Memory (Mercury). The record was produced by Lee Townsend and features Frisell on guitar, Viktor Krauss on bass, Brian Blade on drums, and a horn section comprised of Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ron Miles on trumpet, Don Byron on clarinet, and Billy Drewes on saxophone. Cassandra Wilson and Elvis Costello lend vocals to a few of the tracks.
Downbeat‘s 1998 Critics’ Poll recognized Frisell’s Nashville album with Album of the Year honors, and Frisell won Guitarist of the Year in both 1998 and 1999. Quartet won the German equivalent of a Grammy, the prestigious Deutsche Schallplatten Preis, while the Jazz Journalists Association and the Knitting Factory named him Guitarist of the Year in both 1998 and 1999 at the Annual Jazz Awards held in New York City.
Hal Willner is among the most eclectic and original producers in contemporary music, helming a series of wildly ambitious concept albums which tapped the talents of artists running the gamut from pop to jazz to the avant-garde. Born in Philadelphia in 1957, he first earned notice in 1981 with Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute to the legendary composer best known for his collaborations with filmmaker Federico Fellini. In addition to contributions from pop icon Debbie Harry and jazz piano great Jaki Byard, the collection also featured appearances by then-unknowns Wynton Marsalis and Bill Frisell. That same year, Willner signed on as the music supervisor for the long-running NBC sketch-comedy series “Saturday Night Live,” a position he held for many years.
That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, a showcase for acts ranging from Dr. John to Joe Jackson to John Zorn followed in 1984, and a year later, Willner launched Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, which featured contributions from Sting, Tom Waits, and Lou Reed. After turning to film with work on a pair of 1987 projects, Heaven and Candy Mountain, a year later Willner earned considerable notice for Stay Awake, a tribute to the classic music of Walt Disney’s animated films which featured Ringo Starr, Sun Ra, and Sinéad O’Connor. Animated music remained one of his preoccupations in the years to follow, and in 1990 he assembled The Carl Stalling Project, a collection of vintage cartoon scores from the legendary Warner Bros. studio composer. (A sequel appeared in 1995.)
In 1989, Willner began a stint as producer on the innovative but short-lived syndicated television series “Michelob Presents, Night Music,” followed in 1992 by Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, another all-star tribute featuring Elvis Costello, Keith Richards, and Henry Rollins. A year later, he collaborated with filmmaker Robert Altman on the acclaimed Short Cuts, a working relationship which extended into 1996’s Kansas City and its accompanying Robert Altman’s Jazz ‘34. After wrapping up 1998’s Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (spotlighting performances by Iggy Pop, Ken Nordine, and Jeff Buckley), Willner signed to Howie B.’s Pussyfoot label to release his proper solo debut, Whoops, I’m an Indian!
Tickets to Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable Orchestra with Hal Willner are $35 ($28 Walker and Cedar members) and are available at walkerart.org/tickets or by calling 612.375.7600.