Philip Watson – Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The guitarist who changed the sound of American music
(Faber, 519pp, £20 hb. Book Review by Jon Turney)
Many have fallen in love with Bill Frisell’s music in the last 40 years. Its beguiling blend of every possible American style – folksy melody, the subtlest jazz, rock distortion or gnarly avant-garde noise-making as the fancy takes him – is endlessly fascinating.
Philip Watson fell so hard he has produced a 450-page biography of the guitarist. The fruit of long gestation, it is an exemplary study of an unusually interesting musician. His subject, with his curiously assertive reticence, took some persuading. Surely there was little to tell about a musician who has just stayed married, raised a child, and composed, played, and toured?
In a way, he’s right. Musical biographies can be dull even if you know the work, less interesting still if you don’t. This could easily have been one of those. But Watson goes beyond the basics of study and practice, recording and tour dates, who played what with whom. His book is a skillfully developed character study that illuminates how the qualities of his subject are reflected in the art he makes.
The author is a very experienced journalist and although this is his first book, it doesn’t read like it. He relays the facts fluently, and is good at weaving together archive snippets, telling quotes from other players and music business folks, and words from long sessions with the man himself.
The flavour of those, imbued with the pauses and caveats that are Frisell’s habit, is very particular. His innate shyness has transmuted over the years into a rather studied hesitancy. It’s a clever adaptation. No-one now expects him to say much, but everyone is pleased when he does offer an opinion, or even a regular anecdote.
And the verbal style relates to the music, in more ways than one. It fits a man who is strongly disinclined to do anything he doesn’t want to. That goes for most of us, but he has taken it to a high level. As an itinerant musician he has to travel exhaustingly often, but aside from that, he seems to have arrived at an enviable life. He devotes his energy to creating his music, while having a home base where he can replenish that energy when he needs to.
His habit of speaking in sentences that, transcribed verbatim, are mainly ellipsis, also denotes a mind that is constantly weighing alternative paths, and shades of meaning, deciding from moment to moment which one to go with. Again, we may all hope to do this, but Frisell takes it to the extreme.
And that, surely, is one key to his music, when the choices are also responding to his unusually keen ear for what everyone else is doing. That comes across in testimony from the guitarist’s vast range of musical partners and collaborators – whether Jim Hall, Joe Lovano, Ron Miles, Paul Motian or Joey Baron. And from a novel ingredient that adds much to the book, a series of listening sessions where Frisell admirers talk about what they hear.
Watson, a long-time host of the Wire magazine’s Invisible Jukebox, elicits superb reactions from an impressive cast of interlocutors, from Paul Simon to Gavin Bryars and Rhiannon Giddens. The insightful Van Dyke Parks exemplifies the quality of the listening Watson’s interviewees offer(*). Almost every line included from that conversation is quotable. For example, Parks’ comment on a track from Frisell’s album Big Sur: “The music has a sense of hypnotica…. and of meditation, and inertia. Some people think inertia in music means ‘comatose’. It doesn’t. In contrast to exposition – music that varies and goes somewhere – inertia is the ability to create a sense of place and not move from it. That’s a big discipline and a very interesting musical challenge.”
Another key comment comes from a fascinating session with the three members of The Bad Plus (the original edition), who credit Frisell with inspiring their approach to group music-making. One of the takeaways, says bassist Reid Anderson, is that Frisell approaches all musics with a big-hearted generosity. That was important because jazz “a lot of times is not generous music. It can be very dogmatic and ideological at times, like the music has to be a certain way. And when I hear Bill Frisell I hear the opposite of that.”
That does seem one of the most important qualities of his music, born of a confidence that no matter what anyone else plays, he has a wide enough frame of reference to respond in a way that sounds right. Watson himself is not starry-eyed – he is a sharp enough critic to tell us when a concert or a recording didn’t work. But he highlights innumerable occasions when the Frisell guitar, now Monkish, now taking on Hendrixian hues, now dipping into country, lifts a session to a new level, in a way everyone agrees is remarkable without being able to quite put their finger on why.
There’s another clue, perhaps, in a comment Parks recalls: “Randy Newman was once asked what kind of music he likes, and he said ‘Oh, I’m a goat; I eat everything’. I like that idea. And I bet Bill does too.” That omnivorousness has made him an unusually creative synthesist, perhaps, who if he has changed the sound of American music has done so by making it natural to incorporate all the country’s melodies, rhythms and styles into one body of work, a much rarer thing to hear when he started out than it is now. That is one of the reasons why Watson, like others, is so drawn to Frisell’s music, and why this excellent biography justifies its generous length.
(*) Coincidentally, a feature length 2004 documentary about the making of Brian Wilson’s Smile, one of Parks’ many collaborations, is also titled Beautiful Dreamer.
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