SIFF Face the Music 2017 Review: Bill Frisell, A Portrait

Bill Frisell, A Portrait
(Australia | 2017 | 114 minutes | directed by Emma Franz)

Festival Screenings:
Sunday, May 21 at 2:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Tuesday, May 23 at 4:00 PM – AMC Pacific Place

You may very well have passed Bill Frisell on the streets of Seattle, and not even realized you were in the presence of one of the most admired and emulated jazz guitarists of our time. The Bainbridge Island-based musician has worked with such household names as Bono, Brian Eno, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, yet, he himself maintains a low profile, humble and soft-spoken, letting his music do all the talking.

It’s for this reason that Bill Frisell, A Portrait is long overdue. It took a filmmaker from Australia — director Emma Franz — to get the Grammy Award-winning guitar genius talking. At one point, while filming Frisell on the streets of New York City, passersby keep stopping to stare, puzzling who this smiling man is. Frisell politely laughs, joking to Franz, “Little do they know, I’m one of them.”

But, of course, he’s not. Since the early ’80s, Frisell has been a major player in the jazz world. He appears on hundreds of albums, and has 45 solo albums of his own, or so says the press release — his discography is too immense to track. (His most recent release, 2016’s When You Wish Upon A Star on Okeh Records, was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.”) In an interview with Bonnie Raitt, she recounts how he once wrote 60 pieces over the course of 2-3 weeks. Whether working on his own tracks, collaborating with others, or improvising, Frisell is relentlessly creative.

The documentary has no real narrative, letting the interview clips drive the film. Franz spent five years interviewing bandmates and collaborators, capturing some final interviews from drummer Paul Motian (who sadly passed in 2011) and guitarist/teacher Jim Hall (who sadly passed in 2013). There are also clips with saxophonist Joe Lovano, drummer Joey Baron, composer Mike Gibbs, pianist Jason Moran, and the list goes on and on. As an artist whose career spans nearly 50 years, it may be fair to say he’s worked with hundreds of musicians, and it’s not surprising that each and every one confirms: he is the nicest guy in music. Franz also shares footage from several rehearsal sessions, live performances at sold out venues, and practice sessions as Frisell collaborates with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, led by composer Michael Gibbs (who is, incidentally, a former teacher of Frisell’s at Boston’s Berklee College of Music back in the mid-70s).

Local artist Jim Woodring appears in the film, and the two have a poignant chat about how they each produce silent works (instrumental music, and in Woodring’s case, wordless comics), and how that allows others to bring their own interpretations to their work. (Full disclosure: I worked for Woodring’s comic book publisher for nine years, and organized a concert featuring the two in 2014.)

And in a particularly endearing segment, Frisell presents his collection of guitars, several of which were hand-painted by artist friends. He seems sheepish about how many he owns, recounting how a guitarist he knows has played one single guitar for 40 years. But he also clearly treasures each instrument for its unique qualities, and it’s a fine reflection on how his work is so unique itself: each song infused with everything from country to classical, avant-garde to blues. In the clip, he jokingly laments, you can only play one guitar at a time, but thank goodness that one guitar can play so many styles at once, defining the signature sound of Bill Frisell.

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