Review: Bill Frisell at LJF 2012

Ronald Atkins is engrossed by Bill Morrison's film of the 1927 Mississippi River Flood and happily absorbs the appropriately bluesy soundtrack provided by Bill Frisell, Ron Miles, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wolleson

When first made aware of this film, I assumed it was about a more recent tragedy. In fact, the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 caused at least as much havoc as Hurricane Katrina and subsequent disasters did later, at a time when moving pictures were relatively new. By unearthing and putting together the filmed material, Bill Morrison has performed an invaluable service; with silent pictures needing musical accompaniment, he also could not have chosen better than Bill Frisell (pictured), a guitarist of impeccable contemporary credentials whose recorded career nonetheless includes compositions by Stephen Foster and Muddy Waters. Members of his quartet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, all colleagues of long standing, included Ron Miles on trumpet, Tony Scherr on bass guitar and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

The film cleverly pans outwards. Using the impact of flooding upon the poor black population as the fulcrum, Morrison shows them stacking what are clearly inadequate sandbags in an attempt to stop the onrushing water from bursting through the levees. In some shots, virtually all houses and all trees are submerged. Up to their necks in water, cattle are herded through the streets while bemused dogs float on the remains of wooden roofs. However, this is supplemented by general scenes of rural life not directly related to the flood, so we see horses ploughing fields, labourers picking cotton and then loading the bales on boats and trains. There’s also a brief glimpse of convicts being put to work.

Escape and migration take us eventually to Chicago and the congregation of a Baptist church. Along the way, however, we see footage of both black and white people affected by the flooding. Almost all such scenes keep the races apart, the only integrated shots coming courtesy of (white) politicians shaking any hand offered, irrespective of colour.

The cultural impact of migration follows naturally with dancers and musicians on screen, a guitarist-cum-harmonica player among them. All the time, live music erupts in the background. Frisell launches the film with an extract from Old Man River and uses bits intermittently throughout before a final full version, shared by guitar and trumpet. He has otherwise come up with an appropriately bluesy score presented with his trademark feel for space, the underlying rhythms relaxed and often spun out in long-metre form. I noted some pure-toned improvisation from Miles and moments when Frisell, during a sequence when the flood was shown receding, let his fuzzier tones ring out, but this night was really about being engrossed by a film and happily absorbing the sounds engulfing it.

Photo: Jimmy Katz/Nonesuch

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