By Michael Katz
One of my regrets from the Monterey Jazz Festival was missing guitarist Bill Frisell’s commissioned piece. So Saturday night’s performance in support of the Bill Morrison film The Great Flood at UCLA’s Royce Hall gave me the opportunity to experience another facet of Frisell’s diverse musical oeuvre
The 75 minute film, presented in conjunction with the newly named CAP UCLA program and the Angel City Jazz Festival, is a documentary about the 1927 Mississippi flood which submerged 27,000 square miles and spurred the migration of thousands of Delta residents, including many of the blues musicians who ended up in northern cities, especially Chicago. Morrison relies on footage from the National Archives and the Fox Movietone Newsreel Archive, dividing his story into visual and musical “movements” with no narrative other than introductory titles.
For audiences used to the Ken Burns documentary style – broad themes enhanced by individual stories, narrated by letters or diaries or biographical accounts — Morrison’s overview can seem lacking in focus. Even the Biblical Flood, after all, would be considerably less compelling without Noah. The film’s opening is effective enough, with a map of the Mississippi superimposed on the rising floodwaters. Frisell’s score is ominous with a hint of the Delta Blues. The accompaniment of percussionist Kenny Wollesen on vibes provided an unexpected layer of foreboding. Given the nature of the material, the music was bound to be elegiac, and the main voice through much of it belonged to trumpeter Ron Miles. His playing throughout was graceful, reminiscent of the thematic scoring and performance we’ve often heard from Mark Isham.
Still, without the individual stories to hang a theme on, it was hard to separate the compositions from one movement to the next. About a quarter of the way into the film, Morrison presented an extended look at the 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalogue, which gave Frisell the opportunity to up the tempo and present a diversionary theme, but there were few such segments in the performance.
It’s impossible to view this film without making references to Hurricane Katrina, and it’s clear that, with all the changes in technology and communication, there was precious little difference over eighty years in the treatment of rich and poor. Morrison presents an effective overview early in the film of sharecroppers, working the field with horse and plow. When the floods rise, the evacuations stand in stark contrast: the well-to-do dressed in their Sunday best boarding trains north, while the mostly black sharecroppers huddle in tents like war refugees, watching the waters rise around them.
When the word “Politicians” flashed onscreen for the opening of the ninth segment, snickers arose from the Royce Hall gathering. That in itself was as trenchant a commentary as what followed: white officials in suits and ties, trolling for photo ops, with looks that suggested they couldn’t wait for these moments of noblesse oblige to be over. You kept trying to read lips, waiting for someone to say “Heckuva job, Brownie.” Frisell again took advantage of the change in tone to present a more sardonic musical accompaniment, augmented by the fourth member of the quartet, Tony Scherr, working on a variety of electric basses.
The latter part of the film dealt with the Diaspora that ensued. One segment, entitled “Friendship Baptist Church, Chicago,” simply used footage aimed at the front door of the church, as a seemingly endless surge of parishioners flowed out onto the street following a service. It was such an effective metaphor that the following segment, “Migration,” hardly seemed necessary.
The final segments of the film focused on the musical evolution of the blues, from its Delta origins to the urban streets of Chicago and other cities. Close-ups of blues players showed the progression from acoustic guitar to electric, steel and slide. Frisell chose not to mimic the sounds or present a blues digression of his own. Instead he adapted Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River.” The fact that the arrangement worked so well underlined both his own strengths and the overall problems of the film. There was no shortage of passion, but it lacked the individual stories and themes that connect the audience with the material.
Great Flood of 1927 photo courtesy of Movietone.
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