Fred Armisen & Bill Frisell: Comedy for Guitar Players
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$40 adv / $45 door
Fred Armisen presents a night of comedy and music with his friend Bill Frisell.
For three nights, SF Sketchfest hosts Fred Armisen "in residence" at the Chapel with Comedy for Guitar Players but Everyone is Welcome, featuring a different special guest each night.
If one concept can be said to define the expansive, unprecedented career of Bill Frisell—a “fearless and adaptable guitarist,” per The New Yorker—it might be that of connection. Frisell, now 68, can’t help but draw lines between the landmarks of his life in music.
He likes to think about the rich commonalities among the jazz, roots, rock and pop music he grew up immersed in. He smiles when he chats about the enduring relationships he’s formed with his fellow musicians over the years—how old friends cycle in and out of his fold, and how one chance introduction can lead to a profound, decades-long rapport. He’s also astonished by how the jazz culture he grew up admiring from afar—the iconic players, the monumental labels, the venerated festivals and clubs—has become the place where he makes his living.
HARMONY, Frisell’s first recording under his name for Blue Note Records, embodies this idea of revisiting kinships more than perhaps any other project in his abundant discography. “It’s wild, at this point in my life, thinking back all the way to high school and all these strands of things coming together,” he reflects. “And here I am now—I have an album coming out on Blue Note. Is it possible that I could be part of all this?”
The result of a commission from the FreshGrass Music Festival, an organization dedicated to the vitality of contemporary American roots music, HARMONY features new compositions, imaginatively reworked music from Frisell’s catalog and a typically sharp selection of jazz and Americana staples. It also touts plenty of untraversed creative ground.
Produced by Frisell’s longtime collaborator Lee Townsend—and recorded by Tucker Martine at his studio Flora Recording in Portland, Oregon—HARMONY features the guitarist with a wholly distinctive quartet comprising two longtime collaborators—Petra Haden, voice; Hank Roberts, cello and voice—plus a relative newcomer, Luke Bergman, on acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, bass and voice. Throughout, Haden’s dreamlike, often wordless lead vocals and the trio’s quietly powerful harmonies grant Frisell’s music dimensions it’s never known before. Remarkably, the thoughtful beauty and evocative patience that mark his guitar playing are both smartly accented and greatly magnified.
Frisell had long wanted to match these particular talents and test the alchemy of this unique, drum-less configuration. Hovering between a chamber ensemble, small-group jazz and a classic American harmony group, the dynamic and sense of interplay here are organic and unmistakable—not least between Frisell and Haden, who are essentially family. Petra’s father, the late bass champion Charlie Haden, was a mentor of sorts to Frisell, who played with Charlie in revered bands featuring the drummers Paul Motian and Ginger Baker. Frisell and Petra have developed their own sublime accord, which they’ve showcased on projects like Frisell’s gracefully nostalgic 2016 album When You Wish Upon a Star.
Frisell, who does not sing, has worked with plenty of brilliant vocalists in the past, he points out. But HARMONY is something altogether different, he explains. “We premiered in San Francisco in 2016,” Frisell says, “and, kind of at the last minute, I thought, ‘Wow, everybody sings.’ They sang a few things, and I was like, ‘OK, now I think we’re really on to something.’”
Of course, the GRAMMY-winning guitarist and his collaborators have always sung in his various bands over the years, even when the players never opened their mouths. “Melody is everything for me,” Frisell says, a sentiment he’s shared with both the musicians he’s hired and the jazz titans he’s been hired by—like the saxophonist Charles Lloyd, with whom Frisell has made two acclaimed Blue Note albums in recent years as a member of Charles Lloyd & The Marvels: 2016’s I Long To See You and 2018’s Vanished Gardens. “I had met Charles somewhere traveling in Europe, but it was years and years before we had a chance to play,” the guitarist recalls. An invitation to join a performance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival followed, but a rehearsal did not. “I just went to his hotel room to say hello before the gig, and Charles said, ‘I’m looking forward to singing with you tonight.’ And that meant so much to me, just the idea of singing together; that’s what it’s about. Charles is one of the greatest singers I ever played with.”
Frisell’s work in The Marvels is only one recent chapter in his Blue Note story—a narrative that all jazz musicians and fans share in some regard. He grew up in Denver, and among his earliest LP finds was Volume 1 of Blue Note’s Three Decades Of Jazz, a compilation celebrating the label’s 30th anniversary that contained the universe: Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith with Kenny Burrell, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and more. His study of the Blue Note catalog continued until he began making his own important contributions to the label’s legacy as a sideman: John Scofield’s Grace Under Pressure (1992), also featuring Charlie Haden; Ron Carter’s Orfeu (1999); Don Byron’s Romance With The Unseen (1999). In 2007, he teamed up with producers Townsend and Martine, two of his most trusted musical confidants, and drummer Matt Chamberlain to release the self-titled Blue Note debut by the collective Floratone—an experimental project that transformed extended improvisations into multi-layered studio creations that NPR called “some of the most riveting instrumental music to emerge this year.”
But HARMONY is Frisell’s bona fide Blue Note debut, an opportunity for jazz’s most storied label to document the work of “the most significant and widely imitated guitarist to emerge in jazz since the beginning of the 1980s,” according to The New York Times. Longtime fans will recognize Frisell’s ongoing calling to both honor the totality of American music and represent his personal history with integrity. (Or, as Blue Note President Don Was puts it, “I love the way that Bill annihilates the concept of genre.”) “If I think back throughout my whole life, all the music that I’ve loved,” Frisell begins, “why can’t it all be there at the same time? You can play a Bob Dylan song and you can play a standard song or a Charlie Parker song, and they can fit together. Why not? There’s no reason why you can’t have ‘Lush Life’ and ‘Red River Valley’ on the same album. They’re both beautiful songs.”
HARMONY’s through line is beautiful songs. Along with those two aforementioned gems, the highlights are numerous. Frisell’s melancholy-kissed lullaby “Everywhere” leads to “God’s Wing’d Horse,” whose melody finds its roots in Frisell’s Disfarmer project, and whose lyrics come from Julie Miller, the wife and key musical partner of roots great Buddy Miller, another of Frisell’s musical compatriots. Bergman’s arranging gifts are brought to the fore on a stunningly nuanced take of Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live.” The group delves into timeless Americana—and some of Frisell’s earliest inspirations—with Pete Seeger’s sadly still-relevant “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.”
“Deep Dead Blue” is a wonderfully affecting reprise of a musical/lyrical collaboration between Frisell and Elvis Costello. “There in a Dream” affords Petra, Frisell and company an opportunity to pay homage to Charlie Haden, matching the bass legend’s heartrending melody to lyrics crafted by the singer-songwriter Jesse Harris in 2017, at Petra’s request. Harris is also a longtime friend of Frisell’s, and the two have joined up over the years in various settings. In 2002, Frisell played on “The Long Day Is Over,” a gorgeous song from Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me; the song was a Jones-Harris cowrite and, of course, the album was Blue Note’s most commercially successful release of all time. Coincidence? For Frisell, there are only fortuitous happenings. “Again, as my life goes on,” he says, “I just can’t believe how blessed or lucky or whatever the word is for these occurrences.”
Fred Armisen is one of the most diversely talented performers working today with credits that run the gamut from acting, producing, and writing in both comedy and music.
He is the co-creator, co-writer and co-star of IFC’s Portlandia alongside Carrie Brownstein. He received an Emmy® nomination for “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series” in 2014 and a nomination for “Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series” in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2015, the show received an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.” In 2013, Armisen, along with the other writers, won a Writers Guild Award for “Outstanding Comedy/Variety Series,” they were nominated again in 2014. Portlandia received prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in 2011. The critically- acclaimed show recently finished its sixth season, and the seventh season will begin airing next year.
Armisen’s most recent venture is his new IFC comedy, Docuemtnary Now!. The show is a curated series of half-hour documentaries and biopics, each about a completely fictitious subject. The show is returning for its second season later this year. Meyers is an executive producer for the series along with Armisen and Hader, who play all of the primary roles. Additionally, Armisen recently teamed up with Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, NBCUniversal Telemundo, and fellow SNL alum Horatio Sanz to create a digital comedy channel aimed at the English-speaking Hispanic audience called Mas Mejor. The channel launched in early January and includes a weekly short-form premium comedy series and other topical video and editorial content.
This past February, Armisen starred alongside Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Christine Taylor and Kristen Wiig in Zoolander 2, the sequel to the hit 2001 comedy Zoolander.
In February 2014, Armisen was named band leader of the 8G Band on Late Night With Seth Meyers. The band, curated by Armisen, includes members of indie rock bands Les Savy Fav and Girls against Boys.
An eleven season veteran of Saturday Night Live, Armisen has engaged audiences with memorable impressions and characters including world leaders like President Barack Obama or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the popular digital short “Iran So Far Away” to “Weekend Update” fixtures like political comedian Nicholas Fehn or half of the songwriting team of Garth and Kat (with Kristen Wiig) to name a few. He closed out his last season in the guise of British punk rocker Ian Rubbish with a star-studded performance of the original song “It’s a Lovely Day.”
He has appeared in countless feature films including 7 Days In Hell, Addicted To Fresno, Easy A, The Rocker, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Eurotrip, and The Promotion as well as lending his voice to the feature The Smurfs. He has also appeared in the films Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny with Jack Black, Baby Mama with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, The Ex with Zach Braff and Jason Bateman, and in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
On the small screen, he has made guest appearances on New Girl, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Man Seeking Woman, The Awesomes, Modern Family, Difficult People, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 30 Rock, House of Lies, Super Fun Night, Broad City, and Parks and Recreation, and the cable comedy shows The Sarah Silverman Show, Human Giant, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. He was also seen in the smash kids show Yo Gabba Gabba on Nickelodeon and did voice over guest spots on Archer and Chozen.
His career began as a musician in the Chicago-based post-punk band Trenchmouth as well as playing with the Blue Man Group. His transition to comedy came with the 1998 underground short film Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and SXSW which followed him through the Austin, Texas “South by Southwest Music Festival” posing as a music journalist. In 2006, he interviewed Cat Power for the influential music website Pitchfork.com and later combined his love for music and comedy by creating the role of drummer Jens Hannemann and releasing an instructional DVD, Complicated Drumming Technique, in 2007. Armisen has landed on Rolling Stone’s “Hot List” and has also been included several times on Entertainment Weekly‘s “Must List” in regards to his many projects.
Armisen splits his time between Portland, New York, and Los Angeles.
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