A Bill Frisell doubleheader, onstage and onscreen, coming up in Montclair, Oct. 22

bill frisell interview

Bill Frisell, right, and Tony Scherr will perform at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair on Oct. 22.

A bit of advice for anyone planning to see Bill Frisell and Tony Scherr at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, Oct. 22. The show is at 8 p.m., but don’t miss a 5 p.m. screening of “The Great Flood” — featuring a gorgeous soundtrack by guitarist Frisell, bassist Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and trumpeter Ron Miles — at the nearby Clairidge Cinemas.

Presented in partnership with the Montclair Film Festival, this 2013 film features historic black-and-white footage of the devastating Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and its aftermath, with no sound at all except for Frisell’s quartet, and no descriptions of what you’re watching beyond written titles for each section of the movie. It’s a fascinating way to tell the story of the flood, as well as the subsequent large-scale migration of poor African-Americans from rural Southern communities to Chicago and other Northern cities. Joined by director Bill Morrison, Frisell will participate in a question-and-answer session (moderated by singer-songwriter and film composer Scott E. Moore) following the Clairidge screening, before heading over to the First Congregational Church for the Outpost concert.

The concert will not feature the soundtrack in its entirety, or anything like that. “We’re just going to play music,” said the prolific and consistently adventurous Frisell. “But Tony was involved with the whole process with the film, too, so it’s very likely that we would play some of the pieces that are in the movie.”

He and Scherr have done many projects together, over the years, but this will be the first time they perform as a duo.

“I’ve had it in the back of my mind,” said Frisell. “For so long I’ve been wanting to do a duet thing (with him), and somehow the stars never aligned until now.”

Minimal rehearsal, if any, will be necessary, he added.

“I’ve almost never rehearsed with him for anything. The first time we played together, we played a week at the Village Vanguard, and we got together for a rehearsal with Kenny Wolleson … we played trio. And when we started rehearsing,  it was almost like we just started laughing, like, ‘Wait a minute. We don’t even need to …’ I felt like he knew everything that I was going to do already. I don’t want to sound like we’re not going to prepare for it, but in a way, we’ve been preparing our whole lives for that Montclair gig. But we’ll probably have a little bit (of rehearsal).

“It’s incredible playing with him. He knows my own music better than I do. Like he’ll remember some song and say, ‘Oh, what about this?’ And it will be something that I wrote 30 years ago, and don’t even remember myself. And he’ll remember it, or whatever other songs that we think to play. It’s really a luxurious situation for me, where whatever comes into my imagination, I can just go for it, and he probably knows what it is already.”

An image from the film “The Great Flood.”

Frisell also has quite a bit of history with the “Great Flood” director, Morrison.

“It may be as far back as the ’90s when I first met him,” said Frisell. “He was a dishwasher at (the New York jazz nightclub) the Village Vanguard. I didn’t even know he made films. It was way back then that he asked if he could use some of my music for something he was doing. Then a few years later, some other things started happening. We did this film called ‘The Mesmerist,’ where he used pre-existing music from an album. But then it sort of grew into this … we ended up doing it as a concert thing.

“For a long time, we’ve been wanting to do something from the ground up. Before ‘The Great Flood,’ most of the things we had done together, he used music that I had already written.”

“The Great Flood” doesn’t just feature original music, but original music that was generated in a very collaborative way.

“We went on this trip together with the band up and down the Mississippi River,” said Frisell. “He was gathering material for the film and I was writing music; we went to New Orleans and then up the river. And the river happened to be flooding again at that time. It really added some weight to the whole thing.”

Frisell didn’t write music for specific images in the movie, and didn’t have any input into the footage that Morrison selected to use, from what he found in historical archives.

“But we were both talking about it and thinking about it at the same time. … It wasn’t like the film was there and I stuck the music on later. And I think the music had something to do with the choices he made for how he edited the film, which is really cool for a musician. So many times, there’s the film, and you fit the music to the film. But to have the filmmaker cutting the film to what the music already was … that’s kind of a cool thing.”

Only one previously written song is reinterpreted by Frisell’s quartet on the soundtrack: “Ol Man River,” the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II standard that originally appeared in the 1927 musical, “Show Boat.” Frisell said that it was “custom made” for the subject matter of the film, and a great vehicle to tie together the soundtrack’s different musical strands.

While the music does not offer an exact duplication of the blues, jazz, folk and pop styles that were popular in the ’20s and in subsequent decades documented in the film, it does show the influence of what was popular then, and how music evolved over those years.

“It just reflects what was happening in the music, from a guy with an acoustic guitar on his porch, to downtown Chicago with an amplifier and the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and everything,” said Frisell. “But I didn’t want to try to mimic that.

“It’s already in me, all that (music). If I’m going to play guitar and grow up in this country, it’s like everything that happened in the 20th century is somehow a part of what I play anyway. So I didn’t want to imitate some old blues guy or whatever. The music, I think, is more impressionistic.”

For more on the concert or the screening, visit outpostintheburbs.org. For more on Frisell, visit billfrisell.com.

For a chance to win pairs of tickets to both the screening and the concert, send an email to njartscontest@gmail.com by midnight Oct. 19 with the word “Frisell” in the subject line.

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