Bill Frisell ‘The Great Flood’ + Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and John Tilbury – London Jazz Festival 2012, part 3

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo by Tim Owen.

Bill Frisell: The Great Flood
Queen Elisabeth Hall, London
12 November 2012

I lost interest in Bill Frisell somewhere between the turn of the decade and last year’s Lagrimas Mexicanas album and live dates with Vinicius Cantuaria, which reminded me how wonderfully painterly and sensuous his touch can be. And at the London Jazz Festival last November, his 858 Quartet – with Hank Roberts, Eyvind Kang & Jenny Scheinman playing Frisell’s music inspired by the artist Gerhard Richter’s ‘858’ paintings – suggested that he was finally beginning to emerge from the sepia amnesia of an apparent nostalgia for old Americana. But I should have anticipated how disappointing tonight’s show might be.

The Great Flood is 75 minutes of original music, composed by Frisell to accompany a film by Bill Morrison about the Mississippi River Flood of 1927.

The film is excellent. Morrison has edited archival footage into an episodic narrative not only of the natural disaster itself, but also of the lives of the sharecroppers and others destroyed by the flood, their subsequent migration to cities in the north, and the birth there in those cities of acoustic blues.

For the most part, Frisell’s music fails utterly to mirror the drama unfolding on screen. As we witness the backbreaking labour of poor sharecroppers’ efforts to repair crumbling levees; a couple, islanded on the roof of a car, swept away by the rising flood; and a horse, legs desperately flailing, failing to scramble free from a swollen river, Frisell’s music proceeds at a level narcoleptic shuffle, all brushed drums and dreamy harmonics. The only notable change of pace comes with a jaunty, non-sequitur audio-visual shuffle through the pages of a Sears Roebuck catalogue. Frisell’s playing only swells with electricity  where it seems least appropriate, in a late stage of the film that shows post-flood reconstruction.

Of course, although Frisell’s score is tedious, it is classily tedious. Both he and his band – Ron Miles, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen – play beautifully. In particular, Ron Miles, on trumpet, plays with a lyrical plangency that infuses the otherwise cool detachment of the music with empathetic warmth. That said, although the others are impeccably subtle in their command of Frisell’s idiom, the leader’s solo guitar might have been more expressive stripped of accompaniment.

A portion of the film in which blues musicians cut their teeth amid the infectious inhibition of black urban street culture and nightlife points up a dilemma Frisell must have faced as a composer: his respectful, soft-shoe modernism sounds pallid in the light of the images flickering above him. But it would have been a thankless task for such a conservative talent as Frisell’s has become to try to emulate such spontaneous creativity, without the risk of falling into parody.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and John Tilbury
Bishopsgate Institute, London
14 November 2012

The London Jazz Festival 2012 would have been incomplete without a performance by Wadada Leo Smith. He has released career-defining work this year in the shape of his monumental, 4.5 hour, civil-rights-themed opus Ten Freedom Summers for quintet and chamber ensemble (logistics presumably make a UK performance improbable), as well as maintaining an impressively varied schedule of ad hoc international collaborations. Yet this evening was perhaps equally a testament to the contribution to music of his duo partner, John Tilbury, proponent and interpreter of Morton Feldman and AMM/’lowercase’ music.

Smith began with a solo performance, sculpting pin-drop silence with bold, clarion declamations and ruffled purrs. He made judicious use of mutes to vary the texture of breath-length phrases, and at one point inserted the double reed from a shawn into his trumpet’s mouthpiece to produce a uniquely hazy, piercing tone.

Smith directed the bell of his trumpet at the ground before raising it past the microphone to point toward the ceiling, creating en route a graceful arc of keen, expansive sound that blossomed in a shimmer of sympathetic resonances from the harp of a nearby piano. Hopefully those sitting furthest from the stage could hear it. The audience sat in rapt silence, but the ever-hectic central London nighttime filtered in.

Part-way through his own solo performance, which was characteristically restrained though full of filigree figures teeming with melodic detail, snapping occasionally to dramatic life, John Tilbury paused while the muffled wail of a siren coursed through the room. Appropriately perhaps, his interrupted improvisation was inspired, he explained, by a refrain that haunts Ida Lupino in the 1939 movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (In this clip, on YouTube*, the refrain is first heard played on oboe at 3:05; Lupino then picks it out on a piano at 6:20.)

Offered the choice of two pianos, Tilbury had opted for both. He reserved the newer-looking instrument for his more crystalline conceptions, and treated the older instrument more loosely. In the duo set that finally bought Smith and Tilbury together, Tilbury played inside the latter piano, sounding its casing and harp with soft mallet strikes, while preparations gave certain strings a gong-like resonance. At one point he snapped the lid down for a dramatically percussive dry snap.

Tilbury’s rapport with Smith was characterised by mutually sharp and subtle perception, and their playing was dramatic, incisive, and full of subtle humour, though it never strayed far from that essential, protean silence.

Related Posts
London Jazz Festival 2012, part 2: AKODE, Black Motor, Kuára, Rakka
London Jazz Festival 2012, part 1: Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Bushman’s Revenge, Albatrosh, SynKoke, Golden Age of Steam
Oren Ambarchi and John Tilbury at Cafe Oto, September 2012
Wadada Leo Smith Guitar, Brass and Percussion Ensembles at Cafe Oto, August 2012
John Tilbury and Marcus Schmickler + John Butcher at Cafe Oto, April 2012
Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira – Dark Lady of the Sonets

*YouTube link sourced by Fataka/@fatakamusic.

2 thoughts on “Bill Frisell ‘The Great Flood’ + Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and John Tilbury – London Jazz Festival 2012, part 3

  1. How great – you found the bit in the movie where Ida Lupino hears the melody. I think the instrument is an alto or bass flute though.
    And now, as always when I hear Ms Lupinp’s name, Carla Bley’s beautiful early tune named after her is running through my mind’s ear.

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