Film Review: Bill Frisell: A Portrait

Intimate look at a guitarist and composer whose work has crossed several genres, with snippets of performances.
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The widely admired guitarist and composer Bill Frisell has lost count of the albums he's appeared on. In addition to his twenty or so solo records, and his appearances in other bands, he's played with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Elvis Costello to jazz legends like Jason Moran.

Shot over a five-year period, this documentary provides a broad overview of his accomplishments. Director Emma Franz follows Frisell through several of his musical lives: playing jazz and country in a trio with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollensen; rehearsing with conductor Michael Gibbs and the BBC Symphony Orchestra; archival footage of the Paul Motian Trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard; joining the Richter 858 Quartet.

Franz also interviews an impressive array of musicians who are unanimous in their praise of Frisell. Personal recollections are sparse. Most of the talk is about how he combines musical styles and about his tone, how he colors material through bending the neck of his instrument or through pedals that distort, delay and synthesize his sound.

The documentary has to argue Frisell's importance through testimonials, not music. His compositions can run so long and can be so complex that they are difficult to excerpt. Fans who have followed the musician over the years will have no trouble appreciating what he is accomplishing here. Newcomers will have to make their way with little help or guidance.

Frisell himself isn't especially articulate, at least not in front of Franz's camera. He demonstrates some of his guitars, glances through sheet music, gives a brief tour of Greenwich Village. Affable and self-effacing, he resists explaining himself, his sentences often trailing off as his eyes dart back and forth nervously. At times he trades inside jokes with his wife, painter Carole d'Inverno.

What's most notable about Frisell, apart from his precise, formal playing and the affection he generates from his companions, is his wide grin. Bill Frisell: A Portrait presents an exceptionally talented artist who is able to pursue whatever direction his genius takes him. Jazz followers will also get the chance to revisit through interviews departed masters like Paul Motian, Jim Hall and John Abercrombie.

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