May 22, 2024

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Bill Frisell: I’ve left a couple of minutes of the music to play out at the end

Australian jazz singer Emma Franz, also a filmmaker, knows something about improvisation. It was a chance event in 2009 that began an eight-year odyssey, resulting in her new film Bill Frisell, A Portrait.

In that year her first film, Intangible Asset No 82, a music feature, was being shown at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. It also had won an AFI award for best sound in a documentary in 2009, and best foreign documentary at the 2010 Durban International Film Festival in South Africa.

Franz was at SXSW in 2009 with her brother Ben but they found the festival so crowded they couldn’t get into many of the events. Ben noticed in an off-program listing that eminent guitarist Bill Frisell was performing at the Continental Club, so they went down the road to hear him play.

Franz had long been an admirer of Frisell’s music, but this was a transformative experience for her.

“It just hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightning that I should try and explore what it is about his music that resonates with me,” she says.

It has been a long haul, but Franz has released Bill Frisell, A Portrait. She produced, directed, shot and edited the work, and recorded most of the dialogue.

Given Frisell’s pre-eminence, the film is a natural candidate for screening at jazz festivals, as well as film festivals, and it already is winning plaudits around the world. It will be shown on June 4 as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. (Inexplicably, it was turned down by the Sydney Film Festival, which also takes place this month.)

“Bill Frisell seems to encompass everything that fascinates and excites me about music,” says Franz. “In his music there is individuality and universality, technique and simplicity, diversity, intensity and depth, and the sense of adventure of a child.”

Frisell is such a dominant figure in American jazz — in Americana generally — that one wonders why he hasn’t been the subject of a major film before. In the jazz world he is widely regarded as the most innovative guitarist since Wes Montgomery.

But describing Frisell as simply a jazz artist doesn’t do him justice, just as prolific is too narrow a word for his recording career.

Now 66, Frisell emerged in the early 1980s and has played on 250 albums, 40 of them his own. Nor does the word eclectic seem strong enough, considering his wide-ranging musical collaborators: John Zorn, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Bono, Brian Eno, Jan Garbarek, Keith Richards, Paul Motian, Ron Carter, Joe Lovano — the list goes on.

Here is a great guitarist who effortlessly slots into any style of improvised music, whether it be rock, country, jazz, blues or the free avant-garde, with an uncanny ability to preserve his own individuality.

Also a prolific composer, Frisell has moved lately into what might be called classical chamber music and symphonic music. In the film there is considerable footage of him rehearsing and performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a collaboration with celebrated conductor Michael Gibbs, who has arranged many of Frisell’s compositions.

What makes this extraordinary musician tick? Here, Franz’s film is a revelation.

Frisell appears to be a genuinely nice guy: the obverse of Miles Davis, with whom Frisell is frequently bracketed as a great innovator. On a bad day, Davis could be thoroughly unpleasant. Frisell, according to the film, almost seems like a version of that nice, slightly kooky neighbour who you find out later also happens to be famous.

“That’s really him, just like the person next door,” Franz says. “He can be a bit shy, a bit reticent to come forward or sometimes a bit hesitant to let on how much he knows. He’s not going to wave it in your face. He’s gentle, he’s kind, and his humour is so subtle. That’s something I really love and I think that comes through in his music.

“Coming from a former life as a professional musician, I am interested in trying to make music films that might access some of the less tangible aspects of music making and the motivations behind ‘music as a life choice’, beyond the desire for fame and fortune.

“I felt Bill’s personality was a big part of why his music is so effective, and he made a good cinematic character for a director like me who is interested in nuance.”

Franz began filming with Frisell in 2009 and did many interviews with him in different locations across five years. The major face-to-face interview that runs through the film was the last shoot, at Frisell’s home in Seattle, and it took about six hours.

“By that time I was trying to tie together ideas and things I’d gleaned from my years filming, as well as snippets that might tie together various things I’d shot. From that point I started scripting and editing.

“This was by far the best interview with Bill because by that stage he had relaxed with me and could see where I was going with things.”

For the jazz buff, there is fascinating film of Frisell with his mentor, guitarist Jim Hall, who died in 2013. And to many, the highlight may well be the footage of Frisell performing with drummer Motian and saxophonist Lovano at New York’s Village Vanguard. Shortly after this footage was captured, Motian died, in 2011.

“I shot that footage hand-held along with two additional camera crew,” says Franz. “One was on a wide shot. The other two were wielded by myself and my friend Manfred Reiff who did second camera on three New York shoots. Manfred and I were crammed on the front bench at the Vanguard, so the footage was as intimate as possible.”

Franz had been in South Korea for the theatrical release of her Intangible film but dropped everything to return to New York for this occasion. It was worth it. “It did turn out to be the last ever performance of that trio after some 30 years together.”

Some of the most engaging footage occurs with Frisell and Franz strolling down the street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Franz is filming with a hand-held camera. People stop and stare, and Frisell is a little puzzled by their attention. “Little do they know I’m one of them,” he says. It’s a memorable and revealing remark.

Bill Frisell, A Portrait has been a year-in year-out project for Franz, while she has been performing around the world whenever she can as a jazz vocalist. Otherwise, she has not been idle.

She also has been working on a book that is concerned, she says, with “a philosophical and ethical argument for subjectivity and creative construct in nonfiction cinema”. It’s due for release next year.

JBN.S: – There’s no narration in the film, with someone telling Bill’s story; it’s almost more impressionist?

Emma Franz: – “Yeah, I didn’t want to do a biography. From the start, I wanted it to be more of a portrait, which is why I called it that in the first place. But I wanted it to be about ideas and attitude and approach, and all of those things that are often left out of music films. It’s so often just about the biography, or some scandal. We were going to fake his overdose to get some excitement at the end of the film, but that never happened!” (Laughs)

Bill Frisell: – “Yeah, for me, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone, ‘I played the clarinet and then I did this, and I used these strings,’ and all that. I mean, that’s all cool, but she got at something that I don’t think anybody’s ever [captured] — you know, it’s about the process, or whatever it is that I [go through]. I felt like you could actually see that.”

JBN.S: – Did you approach the film like the audience probably already knew who Bill was?

EF: – “Well, I think the opening scenes [with Raitt, Simon and others] are for people who, if they don’t know Bill, they at least see how respected he is. In a way it’s kind of antithetical to what I like to see in a music film, because you don’t want just empty praise. But then I think hopefully the film goes on to explain WHY people say that about him. I always hope it’ll bring other people to it. And then I’ve had people who have seen it who said, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe I didn’t know who he was, but I realize now I’ve heard his music everywhere.’

But I think it’s something problematic with music films — people think they have to know who it’s about to enjoy it. If you walk into a feature film, you don’t know the characters; you get drawn into their personality. I think that’s how people are responding to this film. They feel like they’ve been hanging out with Bill and they’re getting to know him.”

JBN.S: – There’s a moment in the film that sharply illustrates the difference between practicing and performing. Can you elaborate on that?

BF: – “Well, when you’re really doing the gig, there’s so much more intensity happening. It doesn’t always work out that you get it, but you have to deal with it. When you’re practicing, it’s a few steps removed from what the actual music is. I mean, I know you have to do it; that’s how we get things together.

Just the other day, there was this tribute for Pat Metheny in New York. It was like all these guitar players, and they asked me to come and play this one song. So I spent all day — you should have heard it, it was incredible! (Laughs) In my room I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna get out there, I’m gonna show Pat.’ And then I came out there and I was just petrified — it was horrible. And I think it might have been better if I hadn’t been practicing. Because it puts all these expectations in your way, when you should be just in the moment. Be where you are and do what you can do. So that’s what happens with the gig. You just have to deal with it.”

JBN.S: – There’s a scene where you’re going over very recently written sheet music that felt like a rare window into the songwriting process:

BF: – “Well that’s what I thought — because that’s never been shown before.”

EF: – “This is one of the things I’m trying to do, when I’m making films about music — to sort of dismantle the idea that there are people with these god-given gifts. There are geniuses who walk among us, but such a huge amount of it is just doing it every day and working, and then going back through things and editing.

“It’s obviously his talent, and there’s a whole lot of other factors. But I think people don’t often show that it’s a very human process. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve just got to do it every day. Hopefully that’s inspirational to people who feel like they can’t do it because it’s not just flowing up out of them like a god-given gift.”

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