Bill Frisell - Disfarmer

album review


Release date: July 21st 2009

Availability: CD, MP3 Download

 Bill Frisell: Disfarmer cover

If you could somehow gather up the musical nous of Charles Ives, Woody Guthrie, Hank Wiliams and John Fahey and refract it through the lens of a genius like Miles Davis you might end up with the increasingly individualistic music of Bill Frisell. It's as if he is discovering a lost thread in American music – what might have happened if the Poor Whites of the Dustbowls of the Depression era had set themselves a challenge as demanding as their Black counterparts in developing their blues roots into a music like jazz. Call it a jazz from a parallel universe that doesn't sound or feel much like jazz but is its close twin.

Disfarmer was a reclusive photographer called Mike Meyers who lived from 1884 to 1959 and was one of seven children in a German origin Arkansas farming family. "Meier" in German means "dairy farmer". To show that he could escape this background he became a dis-farmer ('not a farmer') and changed his name to Mike Disfarmer. His "penny portraits" (taken with great care concerning lighting and composition) were mostly taken in his studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas in the 'forties and 'fifties. They were discovered in 1976 and are being increasingly valued as an outsanding artistic record of the lives and aspirations of ordinary people of those times.

 Bill Frisell: Disfarmer concert photo
Photo: Michael Wilson/mspmag

Bill Frisell's involvement began with an invitation from Chuck Helm, Director of the Performing Arts at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, to take part in 'The Disfarmer Project', a touring work that premiered on March 3rd, 2007. Slides of Disfarmer's work were projected alongside music composed and performed by Bill Frisell (joined by Greg Leisz on lap steel guitar and Jenny Scheinman on violin).

It is this music that forms the basis for the current album which features the same musicians with the addition of Viktor Krauss on bass. Arthur Crudup's 'That's Alright Mama' and Hank Williams' 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)' are also added.

There is a real intensity and strange beauty to this music. You don't need to see the photographs that inspired it to enjoy it; the work is not programmatic in any limiting sense. Rather it is evocative in terms that are all its own. In many ways, its effect is the greater for having the literalness of seeing the photographs removed.

"Disfarmer" is an outstanding further chapter in Bill Frisell's growth as a major American artist in his own right.

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 Bill Frisell: Disfarmer cover

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 Bill Frisell: Disfarmer cover

Dan Hurlin's puppet project on Disfarmer

Dan Hurlin YouTube excerpt

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