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Bill Frisell: The Quiet American

In a new documentary and solo-guitar album, Bill Frisell features his trademark sense of deceptive simplicity

Bill Frisell (photo by Monica Jane Frisell)
Bill Frisell (photo by Monica Jane Frisell)

Midway through Emma Franz’s charming but weirdly structured documentary Bill Frisell: A Portrait, the director is following the guitarist with a camera as he walks down 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village. As they get to the corner of 8th Street, Frisell takes note of the passersby who are staring at him quizzically, wondering if he might be, you know, famous or something. “Little do they know,” he confides to Franz with a somewhat embarrassed grin, “I’m one of them.”

And yet he’s not, quite. At this point, it’s beyond argument that Frisell is one of the leading jazz guitarists of his generation; given that his generation also included John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny and John Scofield, that’s not a bad claim to fame. It’s also indisputable that his influence on music of multiple genres over the past 35 years has been enormous. The only big question now is where he stands among the all-time greats. Franz clearly believes that he deserves a prime spot in the pantheon (a belief I share), and she makes a decent case for that, but not in the most compelling way.

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