Filmmaker Morrison, guitarist Frisell heard 'uncanny' echoes of 1927 flood in 2011 Memphis

Back in May, on the Monday after a storm-truncated Beale Street Music Festival, as the waters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries continued to rise ominously, I checked out a show at the Hi-Tone Cafe by the acclaimed jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and his instrumental quartet. The weather was atrocious -- chilly, with scattered deluges of rain and swirling gusts of wind -- but inside the club was warm and cozy, packed with jazz fans on the first Monday in May, usually a dead night for live music.

The laconic Frisell, who plays facing the back of the stage and rarely addresses the audience, mentioned several times the severe weather outside and wished Memphis good luck amid the historic flooding. He also included a lilting arrangement of Memphis favorite "Ol' Man River" and a few other tunes appropriate for the occasion, like Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." Somehow, this offbeat guitar player and his band had captured the moment perfectly in their impressionistic renditions.

About a week later, I ran into Joe Restivo, guitarist for Memphis soul-jazz combo The City Champs. He told me that he had seen Frisell the day after the show in a coffee shop and struck up a conversation. It turns out, as I tweeted that day, that the Hi-Tone show was something of a coincidence: Frisell happened to have been contributing the score to a documentary film about the Great Flood of 1927, which seemed to be replaying itself more than 80 years later. What better time and place to try out some of the new material?

Now that film, Bill Morrison's "The Great Flood," is showing around the country, and  Frisell and his band are providing live musical accompaniment. From The Dartmouth:

When composing the film's score, Frisell tried to create music that evoked similar emotional reactions to those evoked by the flood.

During a tour of the Mississippi floodplain this spring, Frisell and Morrison found themselves in the midst of another great flood similar to the 1927 flood.

"Being in that part of the country and the river was flooding ... it had a huge impact on what we felt," Morrison said. "It was also the same time of year, it was just uncanny."

The effects of the 1927 flood outlasted the river's crest, and helped shape much of the cultural landscape of the 20th century, The Dartmouth explains:

In the flood's aftermath, the poor sharecroppers whose livelihoods were destroyed moved from the South to the North. Many farmers were musicians, and the evolution of acoustic blues was an outgrowth of the challenges they faced while adapting to their new industrial surroundings. The blues gestated in cities like Detroit, Nashville and Memphis until eventually developing into jazz, rock and R&B.

UPDATE: More on "The Great Flood" from Carnegie Hall's blog.

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