Saturday 29 November 2014

Frisell Residency Reflections

It has been a couple of days now since the end of the Bill Frisell residency at Capilano U and I think all of the students and faculty are still basking in the glow.

The residency took place November 24 through 26, 2014. On the first day, we had a faculty interview session with Bill. Ron Samworth, Brad Turner, Bill Coon, Andre Lachance, Bradshaw Pack, and I were on the panel. Each of us had chosen one of Bill's many recordings to play for him and thought of things we would like to ask. Bill is famously shy and quiet so I was a little concerned about how this event would go. I needn't have worried. Andre chose “Turn Out the Stars” from Paul Motian's album of Bill Evans' music. Bill immediately launched into some great stories about meeting Evans in 1969 and lots of other stories about playing with Motian. Other faculty members chose recordings from “Rambler”, “Have a Little Faith”, and the trio record with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland. Again, Bill seemed eager to share and remember his experiences in the studio with 'the greats'. It was truly jazz nerd heaven.

On Monday and Tuesday afternoons, there were open rehearsals for the concert with Bill's trio and Brad Turner. I thought it was very generous of Bill and the band to allow the students to observe the rehearsal process. Normally, this would be quite a private thing for musicians. In any case, they all seemed quite comfortable rehearsing with an audience and the rehearsing on both days was actually a lot like a concert, with very few stops and starts in the tunes. Both Brad and Bill are both so self-effacing and agreeable that it did take a while to come to decisions at times; each one wanting the other to feel comfortable and respected. Bill told us in many of the sessions that he really values musical collaborations that are all about trust and respect and love. He certainly modelled those qualities for the students. Ted Poor (drums) and Luke Bergman (bass and acoustic guitar) are incredible collaborators and seem to have some kind of telepathic connection with Bill, following and complimenting every subtle move. Brad was very nervous about the whole thing. I think it was great for students to see that someone on Brad's level of musical development can still get nervous in some situations.

On Tuesday morning, Bill watched one of our large ensembles, NARWHAL, perform an improvised score for an excerpt from F.W. Murnau's silent film masterpiece, “Sunrise”. The students asked wide-ranging questions about Bill's work in the area of creating music for motion pictures and Bill was really interested in what the students were doing and asked questions of them as well. He was quite impressed at the effort the students had made to educate themselves about his film scoring work. Bill was quite amazed that we would have a school ensemble doing this kind of thing and said a lot of complimentary things about the student performance.

On Wednesday morning, the 4th-year small ensemble class (5 different groups) played tunes from Bill's huge catalogue of compositions. The students had independently selected and prepared very creative and original interpretations of his music and Bill was really impressed with their playing and originality. There were many highlights in this session.  At one point, Bill was working at the piano with one group to show them Carla Bley's counterline for his tune “Throughout”. Later in that session, one of the students, Jonathan Mueller, had written lyrics to one of Bill's tunes and had somehow intuited a great deal of the intention and emotional meaning behind the tune and captured it in the lyrics. Jonathan gave Bill a page with the lyrics printed on them and Bill just stared at that page for the whole tune.  When I looked over at Bill, his glasses were completely fogged up and there were tears on his cheeks. It was a moment of great poignancy and beauty that really showed how music can profoundly connect people from different generations and places. It was a sacred moment.  

I was especially impressed with the students who participated in the two morning sessions, who took time out to learn Bill's music, to perform for him, and to do the background research that made the questions and comments so meaningful.  At the end of that Wednesday session, Aaron Andrada asked Bill what he had though of the residency experience.  Bill told the students that Cap is a very special and unique place.  He said he was especially impressed with the openness and goodwill among the students, the non-competitive and musically supportive atmosphere, the degree of musical freedom allowed to student ensembles, and the degree to which the students used that freedom to make creative choices.  This was certainly my proudest moment as coordinator of the program. As great as the final concert was, I think that Wednesday morning session was the highlight for me. I was so incredibly proud of our students.

The final concert included compositions by both Bill and Brad and featured the ensemble in various configurations including quartet, trio, and a beautiful Bill and Brad duo version of “Body and Soul”. I thought Luke's acoustic guitar playing was really special. It reminded me of a lot of the multi-tracked Frisell guitar records, but live in real time. Luke and Bill are so connected that Luke plays like an extra pair of hands. It was sometimes difficult to know who was playing what. Ted's drumming was really inventive and tended to serve textural and orchestrational roles more often than time keeping, but the guy can really swing and play great time too when the situation demands. They played a wide range of material from Sonny Rollin's rhythm changes tune, “No Moe”, to a memorable cover of the James Bond movie theme, “You Only Live Twice”.  Brad's composition "Wishing Won't Make it So" was a dedication to his mother and one of the highlights of the show for me along with “Too Soon”, a beautiful suite of through-composed works composed and premiered especially for the event.  Brad really poured his heart out through that horn on "Wishing" and I thought the material really fit in exceptionally well with Bill's new compositions.  Despite his nervousness, Brad acquitted himself nobly in every respect and proved himself more than equal to the task, playing trumpet, flugelhorn, and cornet with great emotional depth and beauty of sound.

I have been truly uplifted by this whole experience and I'm sure you all have too. I have been especially impressed by Bill's kind nature, his humility, and sensitivity. He has a greater range and variety of smiles than I have ever seen on any other person and seems to be delighted with and pleasantly surprised by music and life all the time. He is not only a master musician, but a true role model and enlightened human being. Bradshaw Pack observed that his visit has actually changed the department and changed all of us at the molecular level and I think that is true. I hope we will keep the lessons we have learned close to our hearts and apply them in our interactions in this school community and in our music.

We all express heartfelt thanks to Bill for an amazing three days.
Many thanks are also due to Fiona Black at the Blueshore Centre who has been quietly working behind the scenes for years to make this possible, and to Bill's manager, Phyllis. Thanks also to our former Dean of Fine and Applied Arts, Dorothy Jantzen for donating funds for the residency and to our current Dean, Jennifer Moore for being so supportive of this project.

Cap Jazz alumna and saxophonist, Laura Dunfield, took the performance pictures you see here.  You can contact her at her website: