Courtyard C @ Mass Moca
North Adams, MA
August 4, 2006
By J Hunter
It is completely appropriate that Bill Frisell won Best Guitar in Down Beat's recent critics poll. Aside from being a remarkable player and composer, his music is so unique. Regularly eschewing traditional jazz structure, Frisell uses almost every variety of American music - jazz, blues, bluegrass, country - to sculpt his pieces like a storyteller, placing the listener in a structured environment while offering imagery completely open to interpretation.
With that in mind, it made perfect sense for Frisell to create original music for media as varied as the silent films of Buster Keaton, the eerie adaptations of Bill Morrison, and the surreal animations of Bill Woodring. And while MASS MoCA's Courtyard C may not spring to your mind as a place for all this to come together, for me there couldn't be a better venue. The incomparable modern art museum has mixed music and media throughout its summer entertainment series, so having the Big Dipper hanging over this performance was ideal - particularly when the works Frisell soundtracked dovetail with MASS MoCA's everyday offerings of the weird, exotic and bizarre.
Frisell was soft-spoken, almost shy, as he introduced drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist Tony Scherr, his rhythm section from last year's double-live CD East/West (Nonesuch). Dressed in grey pants and a black t-shirt with a 45 record adapter on the front, the bespectacled, slightly wild-haired man seemed abashed he was even on the stage. But as the lights went down and the first of four Woodring animations appeared on the side of the repurposed factory, Frisell's bashful smile became the grin of someone about to undertake some serious fun.
Calling Woodring an animator doesn't do him justice. Trey Parker & Matt Stone are animators, and while I deeply love South Park, it is nothing compared to Woodring's art. He is like Frisell in that he is comfortable with multiple genres, and mixes traditional animation, stop-action, cut-and-paste, and Clay-mation to give us glimpses of the world of Frank, a guileless catlike creature beset by demons both literal and symbolic. While the soundtracks for the rest of the program came from commissions Frisell received as early as 1991, the Woodring music is relatively new; Frisell told me afterward that one of the pieces was originally written for a larger ensemble, though it was impossible to tell during the seamless performance.
Unlike Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle - who Dave Douglas re-introduced with last year's multi-media piece Keystone - Keaton's work is both well known and well-loved. Like Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, the deadpan Keaton was a master of the physical comedy so key to the Slapstick genre, and Frisell's music acted as narrator, background painter, and sound effects man. The two Keaton comedies - One Week and The High Sign - were typical of the Silent era, and hilarious antidotes to the horrific scenes of The Mesmerist, Morrison's re-working of the 1926 silent film The Bells.
This long-forgotten piece (with Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff in some of their earliest film work) surrounds the murder of a Polish Jew by an innkeeper, and includes one nightmarish scene that envisions the Holocaust, still twenty years away at the time of the film. The nitrate print of The Bells was in a severe state of disintegration when Morrison got to it, but his psychedelic images and overlays make The Mesmerist even more of a fever dream.
Wolleson and Scherr's foundation work was outstanding throughout the evening, allowing Frisell to use his singular sound (all on electric guitar) to create or relieve tension, to reveal secrets and enlarge characters. Though Frisell obviously loves all the artists on the screen, there was a palpable zeal to his performance during the Woodring segments; he used an unbilled fifth Woodring cartoon as background for a short encore.
For those Frisell fans that came to hear Goodnight Irene or Blues For Los Angeles, this might have been a disappointing evening. But that would ignore the fact that Frisell was in his element from start to finish, and took the work of three entirely dissimilar artists to an even higher level. As far as I'm concerned, that's entertainment!
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.