Guitarist Bill Frisell’s last appearance with SFJAZZ was almost exactly a year ago, when he performed The Great Flood in Herbst Theatre. This was not so much a jazz concert as a multimedia project structured around a silent film of archival footage of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 against which Frisell performed a “soundtrack” of his own composition, joined by the other members of his quartet: Ron Miles on cornet, Kenny Wollensen on drums, and Tony Scherr doubling on bass and second guitar. Frisell is now one of the Resident Artistic Directors of the new SFJAZZ Center, and this is the week of his residency.
He has put his guitar aside for this occasion, but not his interest in multimedia. Once again he has composed music for a multimedia setting, this time for two new projects, the first of which was given two performances last night. In both of these projects Frisell serves as conductor of a chamber ensemble in which Miles (now on trumpet) and Wollensen are joined by Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Doug Wieselman on clarinet and bass clarinet, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, and Robin Holcomb on piano, doubling as vocalist.
Last night’s production was a multimedia interpretation of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” written between 1957 and 1959 as a memorial piece for his mother Naomi, who had died in 1956. This involved two actors, Hal Willner as the primary reader and Chloe Webb delivering Naomi’s quoted passages, performing in front of both the musicians and a screen in which illustrations by Ralph Steadman alternated with a film by Webb, who also directed the entire production. The result was, to say the least, an ambitious project; and many would say that, with its broad-scoped synthesis of autobiography and memorial, it is Ginsberg’s best poem.
However, like many great poems, it does not give up its treasures easily. Ginsberg has packed so much into it that one really needs to sit with the printed text to negotiate the twists and turns of his “memory odyssey.” Nevertheless, Ginsberg did believe in reading his poems out loud; and Willner’s voice had just the right sonorities to capture many of Ginsberg’s characteristic vocal qualities. Webb seemed less at ease when it came to channeling Naomi, whose complexities extend far beyond the stereotypes of the typical Jewish mother. Still, the overall experience of the poem resonated well with the printed text; and, if that text does not necessarily speak to the current generation, it has much to say about the soil from which our current artistic values emerged.
The problem, however, is that the poem is overwhelming in its own right. As a result, all of the projected images were never anything more than distracting; and the words were far too strong to provide mind with much attention to pay to the music. Fortunately, Frisell was wise enough to keep that music in the background for all by one climactic moment. One might call the style for this setting “low-key minimalism;” and, in many respects, it reflects influences from past colleagues such as John Zorn and Gavin Bryars.
I would hesitate to call this jazz, even when I speak of jazz as chamber music by other means. This was chamber music for its own sake, serving a poetic text in the same manner as of the music in the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. At least one audible expletive from the audience made it clear that this did not go down well with everyone. However, the poem was the core of the evening; and Frisell-the-composer was as sensitive to serving that poem as Bach was in serving the texts of his cantatas and motets. As Duke Ellington said, “It’s all music;” and when the music serves its purpose so well, we should not quibble over the label we want to hang on it.