Bill Frisell: A Protrait

Review by Willard Manus

Can a nice guy be the subject of a 90-minute documentary? If your name is Bill Frisell, the answer is in the affirmative. He's such a good guitarist that it doesn't matter that his life has been devoid of high drama. No drug abuse or headline-making behavior for this family man, just a lifetime devoted to the making of beautiful, heartfelt music with the likes of Paul Motian, Elvis Costello, Jim Hall, Joe Lovano, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Producer/director Emma Franz pays tribute to the guitarist in BILL FRISELL: A PORTRAIT, a documentary which is distinguished by the amount of room it allows for Frisell's music to be heard. Generous clips of Frisell playing in a multiple of settings--jazz clubs, sound studios, living rooms, symphony halls, schoolrooms--are what separate this film from most other jazz documentaries. By not stinting on the music, Franz makes up for the lack of excitement in Frisell's personal life. Married to a successful painter, a doting father, much-loved by friends and colleagues, the cherubic, soft-spoken, unassuming Frisell comes across as a thoroughly decent, caring and likable human being.

It's also clear from the doc that Frisell's ordinariness does not extend to his musical skills. Although jazz is his first love, he has happily played in rock, country, avant-garde and heavy-metal bands--and written for string quartets and symphony orchestras works as well. As he says, "It's all just music."

Born in Baltimore in 1951, Frisell was turned on to the jazz guitar when he first encountered Wes Montgomery's work. "I loved what I heard and decided to get serious about the music." He quit music school and sought out Jim Hall as a private teacher. Hall's influence on him was major and the two of them became friends and collaborators (they eventually made an album together). "What a great improvisor Bill was," Hall said, "like an improvised symphony. The producer of the album had to signal me to pick up my guitar, so entranced was I by Bill's playing."

The other interviewees in the film (Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon,
Hal Willner, among others) are equally eager to sing Frisell's praises ("everyone who's ever worked with him admires him," said Willner), but the really important thing about BILL FRISELL: A PORTRAIT is the music that flows like a mighty river through it.