One of the greatest living guitarists, improvisers and bandleaders receives a fittingly humble tribute in Emma Franz's loose and personable Bill Frisell: A Portrait. Franz's doc, unlike too many about jazz musicians, actually makes room for jazz music, capturing the clean-cut, restlessly inventive Frisell in live performance in a variety of ensembles. We see fresh footage of him with three distinct trios in three different cities, plus with an orchestra at London's Barbican Theater. In each setting, Frisell dazzles, exhibiting both his singular sound -- an often spectral underpinning of chords; those elastic notes that quaver with warm vibrato; that sense of melody that unites bop with the avant-garde with the most down-home of folk tunes. Also we see -- and more crucially hear -- Frisell's rare acuity as a listener, as he and his bandmates (including greats like Paul Motian, Jason Moran, Joe Lovano and Joey Baron) respond to and expand on each others' innovations.
Franz understands that to honor in film the art of an improviser demands patience from the filmmakers and viewers. To her credit, she lets the musicians play. She gives perhaps too much reign to that patience, though, in interview segments, where she tends to let musicians talk on without the benefit of editing. The interviewees tend to gush about Frisell, who's painted here as just as nice a guy as he is inventive as a musician. If that's true, the guy must be a saint, as Frisell is something rare among guitarists in general and jazz musicians in particular: A contemporary practitioner whose art, while challenging and uncompromising, is as immediately recognizable and cheering to non-experts as Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane's.