Bill Frisell and The Great Flood

Guitarist Frisell discusses his live collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison, coming to UT’s Performing Arts Center Friday, January 21

By Jay Trachtenberg  

By his own account, guitarist Bill Frisell has been playing in Austin for thirty years or more, mostly but not exclusively at the Continental Club. In the ensuing years he’s distinguished himself as an unique voice in the music world. More than  just a jazz guitarist, Frisell has also made stylistic inroads into Americana, country, folk and even modern classical. He’s been nominated for numerous Grammy’s, winning in 2003 for his album Unspeakable. He’s been acknowledged as “Guitarist Of The Year” twelve times in the coveted Downbeat Critics Poll and an additional five times by the Jazz Journalists Association. A new biography by journalist Philip Watson, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed The Sound Of American Music, will be published in the Spring. Frisell will be returning to Austin on Friday, Jan. 21 @ 7:30pm to UT’s Bass Concert Hall along with his longtime trio, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The trio will be providing a live soundtrack to Bill Morrison’s film, The Great Flood, a documentary about the devastating 1927 Mississippi River disaster. This production is part of the UT Visual Arts Center’s exhibition, “Bill Morrison: Cycles & Loops”,  on view Jan. 28 – March 12.  The exhibit is also in conjunction with the Austin Film Society’s “Series: Works By Bill Morrison”, which will highlight some of the filmmaker’s major works.  (Details at I spoke with Bill Frisell from his home in Brooklyn. 

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KUTX: You’ve been working on this project with filmmaker Bill Morrison for a number of years now. How did you meet up with Bill and how did the whole thing get rolling? 

Bill Frisell:  We actually met when he was a dishwasher at the Village Vanguard. I didn’t even know he made films at the time. We started talking and he had a film back then that he asked if he could use some of my music.  I said “sure” and then one thing led to another. We started doing more and more things together. Usually he would take music I had already recorded and use it with some of his films. This eventually led to his film called The Mesmerist, where we started performing live to the film. Then we started talking about doing something more from the ground up, like a project where the music and the film came up all together. Bill found this book called Rising Tide – it’s this incredible story of the 1927 Mississippi flood – and he discovered a lot of newsreel film footage back from that time when this catastrophic event happened. That was the genesis of the idea to start doing this project. He started gathering materials, we both read the book, started thinking about it. Eventually we went on this road trip together and as I was writing the music, we traveled with the band up and down the Mississippi River, playing the music. What was really amazing was the river happened to be flooding again at that time. So it wasn’t such an abstract thing.  I remember being in Vicksburg, Mississippi, up on this levee with the water, y’know, and you see the roofs of houses and the town down below. It was just incredible.

KUTX:  How did the experiences of actually being there work their way into the music? 

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

BF:  It’s a lot different than just reading the book, y’know.  There can be an amazing book but when you’re actually in a place…  I remember the first time I went, some years before that. I’m a Robert Johnson fan and I’m a Muddy Waters fan. I love their music and I remember the first time I went on this trip, I went to Memphis and then drove down into Mississippi. I remember that feeling, driving into Mississippi and suddenly there was this atmosphere, the air. I don’t know how you describe that. All the music that I had been hearing, it starts to resonate in a whole ‘nother way. It was the same this time,  but being with the band, when we finally got to doing that project, we all had these memories of being there, what the air smelled like and what the temperature was like. So rather than just reading notes off of a chart, I think it added weight to the whole endeavor. And the images in the film are just – I don’t even know what the word is -.devastating. It’s so intense what happened then, what’s still happening now. We think about Katrina, just so many things and we still haven’t learned some lessons, y’know.    

KUTX:  When you’re doing a music and film project such as this, are you watching the film first and then creating the music?  How does that whole process usually come together? 

BF:  For this one, we didn’t see the finished film. We took that trip and I was writing little tunes or music, writing along the way and we would play the music, do a gig somewhere and record it. So Bill Morrison had all these recordings and at the same time that he was with us, he was visiting an archive somewhere gathering the visual material. So later he assembled the film into the story, into the narrative he wanted to make and then he placed the music. He had a lot to do with it, in a way like composing. I mean, I gave him the recordings but then he would suggest what piece would fit with what part of the film. The form was sort of all laid out and then we would start doing it live. So it changes as it goes along.  

KUTX:  Does it works the other way as well?  Is his work putting the film together affected by the music you’re making? 

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

BF:  Well, yeah, that’s the other thing that’s kind of amazing about this. There’s pretty much a fixed structure but at the same time he can very quickly change things. He’s always there when we do it, it’s not like we just turn on the film and start playing. He’s the one running the projector and he can make changes as it goes along and sometimes we’ll even do that, change the form or add a section here or there. He can do that really quickly, almost on the spur of the moment. 

KUTX:  So it’s almost an improvised piece, an improvised production overall. 

BF:  Yeah, there’s always some improvisation. We might be playing a certain theme that fits with whatever section, but there is a lot of room in there for things to change from night to night.  

KUTX:  How long was the process of getting this entire project together? 

BF:  A couple of years but we were trying to find something that we could do from the ground up for a number of years, that had been going on for a long, long time. 

KUTX: So at some point Morrison found out that there were films of the flood? 

BF:  Yeah, yeah, like all over the place, amazing. It’s so weird the way they knew ahead of time, they could see the flood coming like days ahead, so there’s newsreel footage taken beforehand. 

KUTX:  Did he find the footage in Mississippi or in some other place? 

BF:  All over the place. We stopped in Oxford, Mississippi at the University archive there. I forget all the places that he found different archives. And uit’s  not just the flood itself, it’s the politics leading up to the flood, the situation prior to the flood. So much of it is about the migration of Americans moving north after this catastrophic event. It’s so related to the music, too, and what was happening technologically, this migration north from rural to urban. The super simple way of describing it, as we’re learning to record music, is imagine a guy sitting on his porch on a farm playing his guitar and then he leaves and goes to Chicago where there’s traffic and noise so he gets an amplifier and plugs in. It’s like that evolution of the music. There’s a lot that’s not just the water. It’s all the rough politicians and how the same things happening then are happening now. They have to decide to release the water to ease the pressure. There are these rich people on this side and there are poor people on that side. Well, which side should we dump it on? There’s some rough stuff in there.

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