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Review: Bill Frisell's Disfarmer Project at Skirball Center

April 3, 2009 |  5:24 pm

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Long known for merging rustic Americana with atmospheric jazz, Bill Frisell brought to the Skirball Center on Thursday night his new Disfarmer Project, a suite of as-yet-untitled compositions intended for a future CD release that are inspired by the American photographer known as Disfarmer.

An eccentric, reclusive man, Disfarmer, born Mike Meyers, became an outsider art figure revered for his stark Depression-era portraits of farmers and families around Heber Springs, Ark.  The odd details surrounding his life seem pulled from a Tom Waits song -- his aging into a mysterious Boo Radley figure, his chosen moniker, which came as a reaction to learning his last name translated as "farmer" in German.

Projections of Disfarmer's portraits flanked either side of the stage as Frisell led frequent collaborators Viktor Krauss, Jenny Scheinman and Greg Leisz through rustic instrumentals that offered a ghostly window into the lives of the photographer's subjects.

On screens divided into panels recalling stained glass, faces from Disfarmer's time morphed into one another as Frisell's intricate compositions shifted seamlessly from one mood to the next, coloring the black and white portraits.

At times Scheinman's keening violin gave the compositions the feel of a hill country chamber recital, while in  other instances Frisell's biting tone took the evening into a more unfettered place, especially as he turned to a number of electronic effects at his side.

Using a pair of tiny music boxes, Frisell would sample and loop their delicately plucked tunes against his guitar's pickups, which rose and receded with a queasy sense of time winding down.

Employing another piercing sample that resembled a harsh blast of radio static, Frisell's alchemy was particularly moving paired with Disfarmer's images of children whose eyes evinced mischief, invincibility or a weariness beyond their years.

Often, the screen would linger on tiny details from the photographs -- a plastic comb tucked into a pair of overalls, a hat rakishly cocked to the side over a thousand-yard stare, leathery hands folded in an old woman's lap.

The eye panned from one side of the stage to the other, with the musicians at the center sometimes disappearing into the score.

Typical of Frisell, much of the music was rooted in traditional country, with one passage resembling a raucous barn dance. It was paired with images of alternately smiling or serious young women, usually in party dresses, posed against Disfarmer's bare studio backdrop.

At one point Frisell offered a dense reworking of "The Arkansas Traveler," trading the song's classic loping theme between his guitar and Scheinman's violin under dense counter-melodies from Leisz's dobro or Krauss' upright bass.

The evening closed on a cathartic note: Frisell's guitar built to a fuzzed-out intensity that ultimately drew attention away from the visuals. As arresting as the harmony between Frisell's music and Disfarmer's images had been throughout the evening, the band's powerful music could transcend a thousand pictures.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: From left, Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss. Credit: Michael Wilson

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