In 1927, almost 80 years before Hurricane Katrina shattered New Orleans, heavy rains caused the Mississippi River to overflow its own levees, inundating many thousands of square miles from Louisiana and Texas all the way up to Missouri and Illinois. It was the most devastating river flood in the United States’ history, especially for displaced African-American sharecroppers and their families, many of whom were forced to live and work—often at gunpoint—in isolated camps throughout the region. The Great Flood, which comes to Reynolds Theater on November 5, chronicles the effects of the flood on displaced Delta blues musicians who traveled north in what came to be known as the Great Migration, contributing to a reshaping of American music from urban blues and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll. The project is the work of many hands, led by experimental film director Bill Morrison and Grammy-winning guitar legend Bill Frisell.
Morrison is best-known as the director of Decasia, a haunting study in decaying film stock, which Duke Performances screens on November 7, followed by a live conversation with Morrison. For The Great Flood, he teamed up with members of the University of Illinois’ eDream Institute and the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to create an aesthetic but ultimately data-driven visualization of the Mississippi River Valley. Like the silent movies of the era it documents, Morrison’s archival footage features live music, composed and performed by Frisell with support from longtime friends and collaborators Ron Miles (trumpet), Tony Scherr (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums), and sound engineer Claudia Engelhart. We recently reached Frisell by phone (at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m.) to get his early-morning thoughts on creating The Great Flood, maneuvering between the studio and stage, and the benefits of consistent collaborators.
Bill Frisell on The Great Flood:
I started out thinking about the obvious impact that that flood had on music. A lot of people in rural areas were just wiped out and they ended up moving up north. With electricity and more technology coming at that time in history, it’s real easy to see how the music changed from being this acoustic thing to developing into louder electric music. The more I studied the flood, it was just unbelievable: the impact it had on the whole country—really the whole world—and the way everyone thinks about technology and politics, greed and corruption. At the very beginning, that stood out as a strong [musical] theme to go with the film. It’s not an obvious thing. I was being fed all this information and trying to be inspired by it. I didn’t try to play a Robert Johnson or a blues tune. It’s more abstract.
On trumpeter Ron Miles and sound engineer Claudia Engelhart:
From the moment I met Ron, it felt like he was long lost brother or something. You know, we just connected so strongly right from the first moment we played together. Somewhere at home, I have an old poster from the first gig we ever did in Denver. I think it was 1993 or ’94—something like that. We’ve been in all kinds of situations together, you know? Leading up to this project, he was right at the forefront of my mind as someone I’d want to be involved with it. I just did an album with him and Brian Blade in Denver like a month and a half ago, [Miles’] new album. It was amazing just to get to play with those guys together.
Claudia is with me 99% of the time. I think of her and trust her like a part of the band. She’s been with me for, wow, more than 25 years or something. I’m always sure that whatever we’re playing is getting out [to the audience]. We get comfortable on stage and then that’s all we can do. It’s hard to leave that up to somebody that doesn’t even know the music. She’s been with me, like Ron, through thick and thin. She really knows my and everyone else’s playing.
On the studio vs. the stage:
In either case, the goal is sort of the same. You know, play something good! But the atmosphere is just so different. In the studio, it’s almost as if you’re looking through a microscope, and when you’re on a gig, it’s like you’re looking through a telescope. In the studio, I’m trying to get the good things that happen when I’m playing live. You know, the spontaneity and all that. I want it to feel like you’re hearing it for the first time—and a lot of the time, things are best in the studio when I’m playing the music for the first time. Then it’s like that becomes the seed for what happens when we play live. I’m not really into doing an album and then trying to recreate it on a gig. I do an album and that, hopefully, is just the starting point for where the music can go.