One of the greatest living guitarists, improvisers and bandleaders receives a fittingly humble tribute in Emma Franz’s loose and personable Bill Frisell: A Portrait. Franz’s doc, unlike too many about jazz musicians, actually makes room for jazz music, capturing the clean-cut, restlessly inventive Frisell in live performance in a variety of ensembles. We see fresh footage of him with three distinct trios in three different cities, as well as with an orchestra at London’s Barbican Theatre. In each setting, Frisell dazzles, exhibiting both his singular sound — an often spectral underpinning of chords; those elastic notes that quaver with warm vibrato; that sense of melody that unites bop with the avant-garde with the most down-home of folk tunes. Also in each case we see — and more crucially hear — Frisell’s rare acuity as a listener, as he and his bandmates (including greats like Paul Motian, Jason Moran, Joe Lovano and Joey Baron) respond to and expand on one another’s innovations.
Franz understands that to honor in film the art of an improviser demands patience from the filmmakers and viewers. To her credit, she lets the musicians play, resisting the urge to cut to experts who will explain to us what our ears have already understood. She gives perhaps too much reign to that patience, though, in interview segments, where she tends to let musicians talk on without the benefit of editing. (A story Motian tells in a backroom at the Village Vanguard gets drowned out for a while by someone playing back a call on the club’s voicemail — and also, as befits that most unfussy of institutions, the sound of a bartender shucking ice.) The interviewees tend to gush about Frisell, who’s painted here as just as nice a guy as he is inventive as a musician. If that’s true, the guy must be a saint, as Frisell is something rare among guitarists in general and jazz musicians in particular: a contemporary practitioner whose art, while challenging and uncompromising, is as immediately recognizable and cheering to nonexperts as Thelonious Monk's or John Coltrane’s (even when playing a guitar-lesson standard like “Wildwood Flower”).
As her title suggests, Franz has created a work about the presence of the artist rather than one making a critical argument. This is a chance to hang with Frisell and observe him. (A deeper but less wide sense of his artistry comes from his other film projects, such as his arresting collaboration with filmmaker-artist-archivist Bill Morrison, The Great Flood, or his scores for Buster Keaton shorts.) Frisell himself comes across as quiet and thoughtful, sometimes even shy. He seems embarrassed to have a camera crew in his home and often uncertain in his answers to Franz’s questions. “Every day I wake up and I start playing and I try to make some sort of progress,” he says early on, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize this master wasn’t kidding. His beatific look — big smile, happy eyes, features and a haircut that emphasize his head’s roundness — suggests a Charles Schulz character, as does his halting discomfort in interviews.
When Franz asks Frisell, in his CD-walled study, what’s inside a closet, he blanches. “I was hesitant to show you this because …” — his pained expression is exquisite comedy — “ … there’s so many guitars in here.” Then, apologetically, he talks through his mild anxiety about owning more guitars than necessary — after all, he can only play one at a time. Later, discussing his ideas about the limitations of musical genres and how his own art ranges so widely in influence and feeling, he again offers up a wholly unrequired mea culpa. He gently jokes that he’s a hypocrite for having bothered to arrange his CDs by category.
Early in the film, Franz catches Frisell with his occasional collaborator Jim Woodring, the artist and cartoonist. Woodring has created several album covers for Frisell, and Frisell has furnished scores for Woodring’s cartoons. They talk, here, about how they don’t talk while working together — that their sensitivities to each other’s artistry run deeper than discussion. Woodring tells Frisell, “It would be a mistake to muddy up what you do with a whole lot of words,” and Frisell looks relieved. Much applause to Franz for recognizing that and emphasizing above all else what Frisell will be remembered for: that sound, those songs, those bands, that habit of listening.