Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Bill Frisell, 'Disfarmer' and 'All Hat'

Though labeled as jazz — largely for convenience sake, one assumes — the music of guitarist Bill Frisell is often cinematically stylistic.

Borrowing liberally from antique country and folk as well as jazz, Frisell has fashioned a sound that balances Americana with ambience. His spacious playing matches the wiry, emotive and, at times, very animated tone of compositions — and well-chosen covers— that employ backdrops of steel guitar, fiddle and acoustic bass. The effect is like sifting through old photographs with black-and-white imagery that convey all manner of figurative color upon each viewing.

Two new Frisell albums do exactly that all over again. One, the newly issued Disfarmer, makes literal use of such photographic association. The music employs one of the most iconoclastic artists of the post-World War II era, Mike Disfarmer, as its key inspiration. Disfarmer was a photographer who shot mostly family and individual portraits of working-class inhabitants in a small Arkansas town during the late '40s and '50s. He was largely unknown during his lifetime — and given Disfarmer's less than neighborly disposition, he wasn't exactly a town ambassador even then. The unadorned human detail of his work has been viewed as "outsider art" in recent years.

When Frisell debuted his Disfarmer Project performance piece in Columbus two years ago, his trio, which featured steel guitarist Greg Leisz and violinist Jenny Scheinman, played the music that winds up on this extraordinary new recording against projections of Disfarmer's portraits. With the rotating images acting almost as ghosts, the performance seemed less a concert and more like a séance.

Disfarmer's photographs are displayed with the album art. But Frisell's wondrous music, augmented for the recording by bassist Viktor Krauss, more than stands on its own. It weaves its way from the warmth and familiarity of Hank Williams' I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You) to the feedback and music-box chatter on the group-composed Shutter Dream to the collapsed Ozark-inspired fiddle wheeze of Exposed (Disfarmer, incidentally, was also a fiddler).

There is also a fascinating, three-part reinvention of Arkansas Traveler, titled Arkansas, that, in typical Frisell fashion, begins with the melody in fragments. The beauty comes in hearing them circulate, gather and disperse again like a pile of leaves during a late summer gust. Like all of Disfarmer, it's an absolutely beguiling listen.

The second album, released in May, is a soundtrack to Canadian filmmaker Leonard Farlinger's All Hat. As with Disfarmer, Frisell uses the same instrumental lineup but with percussion and harmonica added in, the same producer (Lee Townsend) and the same practice of telling musical stories in short vignette form. (Disfarmer sports 26 brief compositions; All Hat offers 31.)

Oddly enough, All Hat is something of a rocking affair at times, as when the ensemble rises to meet the merry grooves set in motion by drummer Scott Amendola during Sting. Then we have instances in which Frisell layers on guitar with stormy density, as on the jagged Interlude 2. But mostly, All Hat has its head in the open, inviting but mysterious American landscapes that make Frisell the most startling and original Americana-inclined guitarist since Ry Cooder.