Bill Frisell: Disfarmer Theme


Disfarmer Theme


Bill Frisell (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, loops, music boxes)


Disfarmer (Nonesuch 478524)

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Bill Frisell (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, loops, music boxes),

Greg Leisz (steel guitars, mandolin), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Victor Krauss (bass)


Composed by Bill Frisell


Recorded: Seattle (February 2008) and Nashville (May 2008)


Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Bill Frisell has composed a rich, deep soundtrackóbut without a movie to go along with it. Instead he has found unlikely inspiration in the images created by Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), an Arkansas commercial photographer who specialized in portraits of local citizens in the community of Heber Springs during a period that spanned the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war prosperity of the Truman-Eisenhower years. Disfarmer had been born as Mike Meyers, but changed his name to assert his rejection of his immigrant parents' ties to the land. Yet, oddly enough, Frisell uses this artist's work as a springboard for his own return-to-the-roots project. Music historians are familiar with the paradox: denial of the traditional itself becomes fodder for a new tradition.

In preparation for making this record, the Baltimore-born and Dever-raised guitarist embarked upon a pilgrimage through the deep South, journeying through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and across the river into Arkansas to Heber Springs. I'm not sure how much this vision quest, or even these strangely formal photographs of everyday folks, contributed to this music, but there is no disputing the power of the results. "Disfarmer Theme" is a haunting 6/8 piece in which the interweaving layers of string instruments evoke those traditional bands at casual Southern entertainments that didn't need drums or a bulky piano to move people to their feet and on to the dance floor. Yet there is also some dark, brooding center to this music that refuses to be exposed to the photographer's flash.

This opening track sets the stage for 25 more songs on a CD that is destined to be one of the defining moments in Frisell's career. The return to primal beginnings is a dominant theme among creative musicians these days, and sometimes expresses itself in the most banal tribute bands and marketing-oriented projects; but a recording such as this one reveals the powerful almost Jungian drive behind this commercial trend. A musician, unlike a child, gets to create a personal genealogy, selected from a wide array of possible sources of influence. Frisell, for his part, may have found a sound palette from the past which also serves as a fresh beginningóan achievement all the more striking given this artist's own expansive personal legacy.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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