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Musical Portraits from Heber Springs 

Guitar genius Bill Frisell offers a soundtrack to the Disfarmer photographs

POSED TO PERFORM
  • POSED TO PERFORM

Bill Frisell's “Disfarmer Project”

7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, Hendrix College Staples Auditorium. Free.

Acclaimed guitarist Bill Frisell will return to Hendrix College on Friday, Nov. 2, to perform his musical response to Heber Springs photographer Mike Disfarmer's iconic 1940 portraits.

Frisell, violinist Jenny Scheinman and steel guitar player Greg Leisz will perform while Disfarmer's photographs — portraying rural Arkansans in their everyday dress and almost always without expression — are projected on large screens behind the band.

Frisell, a Baltimore native, often mines American roots music for inspiration — treating simple songs from the rural American canon as jazz standards. His sound is instantly recognizable, atmospheric and immediate at the same time, never aloof or distant. Every note counts in his sparse playing. His subtle use of loops and delays often give his guitar a pedal steel sound.

That Frisell and company manage to find the common ground between “Misterioso” and “You are My Sunshine” (even quoting the opening riff from the Thelonious Monk tune in Gov. Jimmy Davis's classic song) reveals his dedication to Americana and uncanny ability to reach a song's emotional core.

Scheinman has performed with Norah Jones and Nels Cline. Leisz is a highly regarded sideman who has played on recordings from Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Little Rock's Greg Spradlin and many others.

Frisell's composition, commissioned by Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts, captures what he calls “an atmosphere, an imaginary impression of what was going on in Disfarmer's mind at the time.”

“The first time I saw the photos, it was mind-blowing,” Frisell recently told Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine. “I started generating ideas immediately. Those photographs are so strong in many ways. They're almost like going back in a time machine.”

Disfarmer's photographs have been described by the New York Times as capturing “a passionate individuality” in his subjects, “as well as their response to the camera, and to the strange man standing behind it.” Disfarmer (born Mike Meyer) was said to make his clients wait up to an hour to adjust lighting for their “penny portraits” and subject them to cranky fits of perfection.

A notorious misanthrope who claimed to have been delivered to his parents' doorstep by a tornado, Disfarmer died in obscurity in 1959. He was discovered by the art world in the mid-1970s when Peter Miller, then a young, enterprising Heber Springs publisher (now the smiling, bespectacled lawyer on the back of the Yellow Pages), found and sent Disfarmer prints to Modern Photography. Original Disfarmer prints now fetch up to $20,000.

The event was brought to Hendrix by Special Events chair Danny Grace, who has spearheaded a revival in the live music landscape for fans of intelligent, refined music in Central Arkansas. Since 1998, he's brought Gillian Welch, Richard Thompson, Taj Mahal, Sam Phillips, T Bone Burnett, Pere Ubu, Van Dyke Parks and John Cale to the college's Staples Auditorium. Frisell performed in October 2003 at Hendrix; his show this week marks the first repeat performance from an artist in the series. According to Grace, Frisell specifically requested the date at Hendrix out of a desire to play a show close to the photographs' origin.

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