London Jazz Festival Review: Bill Frisell - The Great Flood, South Bank Centre

Photo Credit: Michael Wilson


Bill Frisell - The Great Flood
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12th November. Review by Don Mendelsohn)


There has always been a cinematic quality to the music of Bill Frisell, from his abstract invocations of times and places through to overt references to the films of Buster Keaton and the rural photographs of Mike Disfarmer. Tonight's sold-out concert - part of a thriving London Jazz Festival - brought this aspect of the guitarist's work to the fore with a well-conceived marriage of music and visuals.

The Great Flood is a full-length film by Bill Morrison documenting the 1927 Mississippi disaster, the most destructive river flood in US history. Consisting mostly of archival footage, the film in this context provided a fascinating backdrop to Frisell's characteristically colourful soundtrack, which featured the thoughtful trumpet playing of Ron Miles, Kenny Wolleson's in-the-pocket percussion, and tasteful guitar and bass accompaniment from Tony Scherr.

Each member of the band seems thoroughly attuned to its leader's sensibilities yet contributes to the ensemble in his own personal way. Ron Miles' beautifully crafted sound and tenderly playful improvisations stood out (often recalling that other great Miles), but there was a refreshing lack of ego about the whole performance. The overall impression was one of a relaxed maturity – four friends conversing for the fun of it, each listening to the others with patience and relish.

At times the mellowness almost reached saturation point, but it is at exactly this state that one starts to look beneath the music's surface and begins to appreciate its subtleties: the mildly discordant passing voicings rippling an otherwise pristine tonality; the overdriven harmonics left floating in an effects-laden freeze-frame; and of course, the many-faced spirit that imbues so much of Frisell's oeuvre – the blues.

It is testament to Frisell's ingenuity as both composer and performer that in an 85-minute set of predominantly two- or three-chord tunes, each piece had something of its own character. Nevertheless, it was sometimes difficult to see the connection between the moods of the compositions and the images they accompanied. For example, a jaunty up-tempo number played as we watched the outbreak of a flood that we are told killed hundreds of people and made many more homeless. But despite the widespread adversity the Mississippi disaster caused, there were also positive consequences: for one, the great migration to the Northern cities that ensued led to a cultural cross-pollination which is credited with the birth of the Chicago blues. And this is what it kept coming back to – the holy trinity of I, IV and V, the language that anyone can make their own – and how Frisell has done just that.

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