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Guitarist Bill Frisell to play original scores for films of Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff at UCLA Live!

April 1, 2011 |  1:36 pm

Bill Frisell Trio-Tony Scherr Kenny Wollesen by Jimmy KatzGuitarist Bill Frisell is nothing if not flexible. In the last month alone he’s been a virtual chameleon, having appeared last month at the Grammy Museum as part of the Majestic Silver Strings, roots musician Buddy Miller’s project interpreting new and vintage country songs, playing across Europe with his Disfarmer Project musical collective, then settling in for a two-week residency at the Village Vanguard in New York with his Beautiful Dreamers ensemble.

And then there’s the pair of gigs he’s doing Saturday at UCLA, where he’ll provide live accompaniment to three shorts by silent-film comedian Buster Keaton as well as a restored and psychedelically transformed '30s horror film.

For the UCLA Live! performances, the Bill Frisell Trio, also including bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, will, for a 2 p.m. family matinee, play music that Frisell wrote almost two decades ago for Keaton’s 1920s comedies “One Week,” “The High Sigh” and “Go West.”  In the evening they’ll perform the Keaton scores again along with music for Bill Morrison’s “The Mesmerist” plus other music to accompany a display of illustrations by Seattle artist Jim Woodring.

Frisell created the music for the Keaton films in the early 1990s and has given select performances with screenings of those films since then -- but never in or near Hollywood, where the writer-director-performer known as the Great Stone Face did so much of his film work.

“We did it live quite a bit, but more on the East Coast. We toured around Europe. It’s actually happened more in Europe than the States,” Frisell said, noting the even greater reverence held there for Keaton’s work than in his native country.

“A couple years ago, we were finally able to release the original recordings with the films on a DVD,” he said. “We had recorded it originally synced up to the film; it was meant to be put out that way. We never wanted to only put out just the music.” Although the scores did surface in a pair of albums released in 1995, “Music for the Films of Buster Keaton.”

The DVD reissue, however, reconnected the music with the source films and resuscitated interest in live presentations. “That brought it back to life,” he said. “We’ve being doing it off and on since then.”

“One Week,” from 1920, is the earliest of the three films. It follows the first seven topsy-turvy days of the marriage of Keaton and his bride, who are dubiously attempting to build a house from a kit sold by mail order. In “The High Sign,” from 1921, Keaton carries out an order for a secret society he’s joined. And in 1925’s “Go West, ” the western genre had already become a worthy subject for satire.

On the evening program, the cinematic component grows more experimental.

“Jim Woodring is a friend, a cartoonist, and there are some animated things he’s done that we’re going to do music for,” Frisell said. 

As for Bill Morrison’s “The Mesmerist,” Frisell had to scramble for words. “It’s hard to describe,” he said with a laugh. “He took a horror film from the '30s with Boris Karloff and Lionel Barrymore... it was an old, old print that was almost completely destroyed. Half the film was melted away. He put it back together, kind of keeping the original story. Now it’s this psychedelic thing. He’s done a lot of work with old, old decaying films.

“We’re doing this all as one program,” he said, “They sort of complement one another. The first time we did those three together was three or four years ago; I think it was in Brooklyn. It’s fairly rare that we do these — it’s not like a regular touring thing. And we’ve never done it in L.A.”


The Majestic Silver Strings: Conversations with Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and Marc Ribot

Album review: Bill Frisell's 'Beautiful Dreamers'

--Randy Lewis

Photo: The Bill Frisell Trio, from left, drummer Kenny Wollesen, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Tony Scherr. Credit: Jimmy Katz.