Bill Frisell: Disfarmer Theme

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.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Cassandra Wilson/Regina Carter/Bela Fleck: This Land Is Your Land

What a joy! The serendipity of this performance (recorded at a post-9/11 "Made in America" concert) and its inclusion on an obscure CD constitute a little-known blessing for fans of Jazz, Americana, Woody Guthrie, the brilliant artists involved, and musical good times in general. The spirited conga drummer goes uncredited, but otherwise it's a who-could-imagine-it trio: vocalist extraordinaire Cassandra Wilson, jazz-plus violinist Regina Carter, and cross-culture banjo-supremo Bela Fleck uniting for a one-off performance of America's other national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."

Let not your mind be boggled; just sit back and enjoy, or get up and dance, because the arrangement moves from banjo-backed folk ballad to cross-the-country toetapper in no time at all, flowing smoothly via Carter's yearning, churning strings, braced and gently buffetted by Fleck's brusque five-string. The combination is startling, and Wilson's sultry, Delta-dusky voice rides it all with stops and starts, inventive line readings and melisma magic.

For eight minutes, Guthrie's social-justice song metamorphoses from dust-bowl lament to ribbon-of-highway instrumental dance, and then to shout-it-out song of pride for people of all races, culminating in the stirring, often ignored penultimate verse--the sign that reads "No Trespassing/Private Property," except that "On the back side it didn't say nothin'." Wilson finishes with the quieter "This land was made for you and me," rather than the rarely heard, more aggressive alternate: "That side was meant for you and me." But either way, on that night in 2001, progressive politics stepped into jazz's big tent.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America

Today, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron is acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and soul jazz, and it is easy to imagine that such artists as Cassandra Wilson considered the poet-vocalist's music before finding her own path. One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early seventies-after the assassinations, riots, Watergate, and Vietnam.

First, there was an album of that name but no song, as Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image and not a subject for music. Then, he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. Live performances and recordings subsequently crystallized the recording's powerful message.

Featured as a bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, this version of the song is distinctive because Scott-Heron performs alone on it. His keyboard work is more staccato and basic and the melody is slightly flattened out. Despite the changes, the cold, hard facts remain: "...Democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain...all of our healers have been killed or betrayed...ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The scenario is bleak but Scott-Heron's compelling music and verbal tropes continue to resound thirty years farther (or maybe no farther) on.

May 14, 2009 · 1 comment


Marc Copland: Country Home

On Beyond the Missouri Sky, Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden made famous a style of music that could be called Americana jazz. Here the master of impressionistic piano, Marc Copland, takes his turn with a folk-tinged ballad. With the help of a heartwarming melody and the soulful playing of Michael Brecker, Copland creates his own brand of Americana jazz.

Copland's ability to play with a floating touch in a beautifully sensitive but prodding way serves him well in accompanying the inimitable Brecker. Peacock's full-bodied, buttery bass is always nimbly dancing around the melody, and while Stewart's incessant use of crash cymbals is a bit disconcerting for me, the overall effect makes you long to settle down comfortably in front of a roaring fire somewhere in Vermont. Brecker wraps his solo in the warm flannel blanket of a sound that is both bittersweet and hopeful, and plays like he is yearning for a return to his favorite hideaway and all the warmth and comfort that implies. Copland never strays far from this pretty melody, but still finds a quixotic way to add harmonic interest. This is an excellent representation of Americana-inspired jazz.

May 23, 2008 · 0 comments


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