Born Michael Meyer in 1884, Mike Disfarmer (his alias) was a gifted photographer who specialized in portraiture. His black and white images are simple but engaging, with a perspicacious eye for composition. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, a member of John Zorn’s Naked City outfit, obviously felt a connection with the photographer as he sets out to “score” Disfarmer’s photographs in his new album, Disfarmer
. Like a film score, this album is based upon a visual influence and thus is best listened to while viewing Disfarmer’s photographs. Frisell’s graceful guitar along with his modern string band, featuring Greg Leisz on mandolin and pedal-steel, Jenny Scheinman on violin/fiddle and Viktor Krauss on upright bass; create a rich, cinematic tapestry. While hushed and sparse enough to play as good background music, the strong blending of Americana, folk, jazz and minimalist classical also creates an intelligent piece of music that can be enjoyed from a technical standpoint as well.
The style changes from song to song, but the shifts are never too radical, allowing for a nice flow and giving a sense of continuity to the album. One moment we’re scaling rhythmic violin arpeggios in the modernist classical piece “Focus” with Frisell laying thick reverb on his thoughtful lines. The next we’re jauntily humming along with playful fiddle and acoustic guitar melodies on the country-tinged hoe down of “Peter Miller’s Discovery”. What keeps these pieces, and the album as a whole, together is the unifying atmosphere. There is an inherent sense of space and breathing room to the music. This is a group of technically proficient musicians, but they don’t try to pack every second of these compositions with too many different ideas. Frisell’s jazz background lends him the greatest confidence in improvisation amongst the group, but he is just as interested in interplay with the band as he is in soloing. For example, “No One Gets In” builds from sparse bass lines to perhaps the busiest soloing on the album but for it slowly molds into a harmonic synchronisation between guitar, bass and fiddle.
At heart, Disfarmer
is the soundtrack to the photographs. As each photographer peers into the souls of each individual, so does the music peer into every grain of the photograph. Each smile coincides with a flourish of electric guitar, or fiddle melody; each shadow is mirrored by lingering pedal-steel tone. It’s in this sense of cinematic grandeur that Disfarmer
truly shines. Not to suggest that the album doesn’t stand on its own merit. The intelligence of the music allows it to stand as its own separate entity just as well as when paired with the images. However, with the imagines accompanying it, tracks like “I Am Not a Farmer” feel deeper, “Lost Again, Dark” haunts a little more, and “Did You See Him?” hurts just that little bit harder. The music is the same, but the images stretch the emotions associated with the pieces a little bit more. This enriches what is already very good music on its own.
The only fault that can be put towards Disfarmer
pertains to its length. At twenty six tracks and over seventy minutes in length the album can be a chore to sit through in its entirety. While there are plenty of dynamic shifts in tone and mood, these shifts are never too drastic which can lead to a sense of the mundane towards the albums latter half. While the leitmotif dynamic that is used adds to the intelligence of the music, it doesn’t help with the length problem. Still, this shouldn’t take away from the great music that is presented. Overall this is a great album with wonderful composition, atmosphere and technical ability. While at times perhaps a little to down tempo, the excellent blending of jazz, folk, americana and classical result in one of the better albums of 2009. Plus it got me to look at a really good photographer who I would otherwise have never heard of. Bonus!