Unquestionably one of the most revered musicians in the jazz world, Bill Frisell comes together with current Grammy nominee and Iraqi oud master Rahim AlHaj and acclaimed violist and erhu player Eyvind Kang for a residency at the Walker Art Center that will culminate in an adventurous evening of East-meets-West compositions. The Walker presents the world premiere of the Walker-commissioned Baghdad/Seattle Suite on Saturday, February 6, 7 and 9:30 pm in the William and Nadine McGuire Theater. While Kang and AlHaj are relative newcomers to the McGuire stage, the Walker has a long history with Frisell, the Grammy Award–winning guitarist and composer who debuted here in 1986, before he had even made any recordings. “It’s one of the most important places for me as far as allowing things to happen that are in my imagination,” he says.
In 1999, Frisell premiered a septet at the Walker and also laid the groundwork for his milestone recording Blues Dream. Now he returns to launch an exploration of traditional Iraqi maqams, Americana, and jazz. The ancient tones of AlHaj’s oud and Frisell’s masterful guitar are spanned by Kang’s interests in new music, folk, rock, and Middle Eastern melodies. “He’s almost like a translator,” says Frisell of Kang, with whom he has played for years. While he admits to not knowing much about Iraqi music, he has wanted to collaborate with AlHaj since he first heard his music, and considers the residency a kind of musical expedition. “There’s no way it won’t work if everybody wants to be there and is open and listening. It’s not about competition or being correct. There are no rules, so nothing can really go wrong.”
The New Yorker described Frisell as being associated with “two of jazz’s border towns”—one it dubbed “Jazz Americana” and the other, a knottier, experimental “Minefield America.” But when asked how Baghdad/Seattle Suite might relate to these genres, Frisell just chuckled. “When I’m playing music, the farthest thing from my mind is what it’s called or where it is. It’s always after the fact that someone needs to say what it is. So it’s impossible for me to say now where it’s all coming from.” As an itinerant performer with a harried schedule, the main thing he’s anticipating is the “amazing luxury” of a musical residency at the Walker: “There are so many places where I show up and there are 10 minutes to get it together and make things work. It will be so cool to be in the same place for more than one day and let things simmer.” Frisell’s Walker residency is presented with the National Performance Network (NPN).
In a career spanning more than 25 years and over 200 recordings, including 25 albums of his own, guitarist, composer, and bandleader Frisell has established himself as a visionary presence in American music. He has collaborated with a wide range of artists, filmmakers, and legendary musicians. But it is his work as a leader that has garnered increasing attention and accolades.
The New York Times described Frisell’s music this way: “It’s hard to find a more fruitful meditation on American music than in the compositions of guitarist Bill Frisell. Mixing rock and country with jazz and blues, he’s found what connects them: improvisation and a sense of play. Unlike other pastichists, who tend to duck passion, Mr. Frisell plays up the pleasure in the music and also takes on another often-avoided subject, tenderness.”
Frisell’s recordings over the last decades span a wide range of musical influences. His catalog, including 20 recordings for Nonesuch, has been cited by Downbeat as “the best recorded output of the decade.” It includes original Buster Keaton film scores to arrangements of music for extended ensemble with horns (This Land, Blues Dream); adaptations of his compositions originally written as soundtracks to Gary Larson cartoons (Quartet); interpretations of work by other classic and contemporary American composers (Have a Little Faith); and collaborations with the acclaimed rhythm section of bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Jim Keltner (Gone, Just Like a Train and Good Dog, Happy Man). Other releases include an album with Nashville musicians (Nashville), the solo album Ghost Town, an album of his arrangements of songs by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (The Sweetest Punch), a trio album with jazz legends Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, and a collection of American traditional songs and original compositions inspired by them entitled The Willies. The Intercontinentals, nominated for a Grammy in 2004, is an album that combines Frisell’s own brand of American roots music and his unmistakable improvisational style with the influences of Brazilian, Greek, and Malian sounds. His 2004 release, entitled Unspeakable, won a Grammy.
East/West is a two-CD set, featuring his two working trios recorded in concert on both coasts. In 2007 Frisell released Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian featuring two jazz legends that Frisell considers among his true mentors and musical inspirations. His collaborative project with drummer Matt Chamberlain and producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, Floratone (Blue Note), is a groove and textural extravaganza, described by All about Jazz as “a modern masterpiece.”
His latest album, Disfarmer, features long-time colleagues Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman, and Viktor Krauss and was inspired by the photographer Mike Disfarmer. The Houston Chronicle writes, “Frisell’s pacing is magnificent, and the album sweeps along with purpose like a gorgeous, spacious epic. It is full of sounds that suggest settings and characters, including the mysterious eccentric who inspired the recording.”
In December 2006, Frisell was named a USA Rasumson Fellow and became a recipient of a grant offered by United States Artists, a privately funded organization dedicated to the support of America’s finest living artists.
Rahim AlHaj, virtuoso oud musician and composer, was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and began playing the oud (the grandfather of all stringed instruments) at age nine. Evident that he had a remarkable talent for playing the oud, AlHaj studied under the renowned Munir Bashir, considered by many to be the greatest oud player ever, and Salim Abdul Kareem, at the Institute of Music in Baghdad, Iraq. AlHaj won various awards at the Conservatory and graduated in 1990 with a diploma in composition. He holds a degree in Arabic Literature from Mustunsariya University in Baghdad. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, he was forced to leave Iraq due to his activism against the Saddam Hussein regime and began his life in Jordan and Syria. He moved to the United States in 2000 as a political refugee and has resided in Albuquerque, New Mexico ever since.
AlHaj has performed hundreds of concerts all over the world, on tour with Munir Bashir, as well as solo and with his string quartet, including in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. His music delicately combines traditional Iraqi maqams with contemporary styling and influence. His compositions evoke the experience of exile from his homeland and of new beginnings in his adopted country. His pieces establish new concepts without altering the foundation of the traditional “Iraqi School of Oud.”
AlHaj has released five CDs. His latest, Home Again (UR Music), is a tour de force of touching and evocative original compositions portraying his trip to Iraq after 13 years in exile. When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) garnered a 2008 Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional World Music Recording category. Don Heckman, reviewing the CD for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “AlHaj’s spontaneous inventions are constantly fascinating—a convincing affirmation of the rich culture of an embattled area of the world.” (January 7, 2007). His earlier recordings include Friendship: Oud and Sadaqa String Quartet (UR Music 2005); a unique East and West musical collaboration; The Second Baghdad (2002) and Iraqi Music in a Time of War (2003). AlHaj’s forthcoming release, a duet recording with sarod master Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, will be released on UR Music.
AlHaj won the Albuquerque Arts Alliance Bravo Award 2003 for Excellence in Music and has been called “The Prophet with an Oud.” His work has been featured on radio and television and in numerous publications including PRI’s The World (November 2008), CNN (July 2008), BBC Radio (September 2008), Los Angeles Times (January 2007), Global Rhythm (January 2007), Time Out New York (December 13, 2006), NPR’s All Things Considered (December 2006), Times of London (December 2006), Smithsonian Magazine (November 2006), Village Voice Top Picks for 2006, and CMJ‘s New World Top Ten (February 2007). AlHaj’s CDs have become best sellers and are frequently featured on national radio shows and movies worldwide, including the BBC, NPR’s Studio 360, ABC National Radio Australia, and PRI’s Democracy Now with Amy Goodman.
Working since 1995, Eyvind Kang can be heard on over 50 records, collaborating with the likes of Sun City Girls, Bill Frisell, Secret Chiefs, Blonde Redhead, Robin Holcomb, Laurie Anderson, among many others. He is one of the most original and exciting violinists currently performing in the underground, a fact cemented all the more by his accomplished solo recordings.
Born in Corvallis, Oregon, Kang spent his youth moving around Canada before settling down in Seattle, where he still lives today. Taking cues from his two main musical mentors, Michael White (who performed with Sun Ra Arkestra and Pharoah Sanders) and Maestro Dr. N Rajam of India, Kang concentrated his studies on the violin. 7 NADEs, his first album, followed a theoretical concept of the NADE as a musical form. The album was soon followed by Theatre of Mineral NADEs, which continued exploring Kang’s notions of the NADE—a term he chooses to not define.
The Yelm Sessions, Kang’s newest studio release on Tzadic, is instantly his most adventurous, varied, and ambitious recordings to date. Featuring many of his most illustrious musical associates as well as several orchestral ensembles from around the world, this CD brings Kang’s exuberant gift for orchestration and lyricism together with a keen sense of the miraculous.
Tickets to Baghdad/Seattle Suite featuring Bill Frisell, Rahim AlHaj, and Eyvind Kang are $29 ($25 Walker members) and are available at walkerart.org/tickets or by calling 612.375.7600. The Balcony Bar will be open at 7 pm and after the performance.