Friday, June 10, 2022

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music By Philip Watson - Reviewed by Larry Blumenfeld


Appeared in the May 21, 2022, print edition as 'Bending the Neck of Jazz Guitar'.

‘Beautiful Dreamer’ Review: Bill Frisell, Chameleon of Jazz

The musician has made a career out of challenging notions of what a guitar ought to sound like.

“A rounded and slightly trebly tone framed by a halo of overtones, along with other sounds—fuzzy-edged or transparent, elongated or truncated, tender or piercing—trace fragments of melody. They form jagged lines, loops in gentle circles. For guitarist Bill Frisell, this amounts to a singular language, by now familiar to listeners spanning genres and generations.

At age 71, Mr. Frisell is a towering figure of jazz guitar, a status he achieved largely by evading strict notions of jazz and by confounding expectations of what a guitar should sound like. With 41 albums to his credit and appearances on more than 300 more, he built his reputation gradually, arriving at the mainstream from the outside in. And then he went back out, far enough to get branded a master of a new “Americana.” He might seem a chameleon, were his sound and approach not so consistent and commanding.

Mr. Frisell wrings both complex musical implications and straightforward emotion from a ballad, thrashes his way through distortion, swings in the deepest jazz sense, and sounds as if he’s relaxing around a campfire, sometimes within a single composition. His music is wondrously odd, relentlessly logical, frequently funny and without a gratuitous note. Listen to him in enough situations, and it seems as if he weaves one cryptic song through them all. His playing sounds complete without anyone else around, yet he is among modern music’s great collaborators.

“Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music” attempts to unlock the mysteries of that cryptic song. “Everybody digs Bill Frisell,” writes biographer Philip Watson. “This is the story of why.” The book is driven by what motivates most good writing about music: obsession. Mr. Watson heard Mr. Frisell perform nearly 40 years ago and just kept going. A London-based magazine writer and editor, he is also guided by the diligence that has driven his accomplished journalism on subjects as diverse as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on children. His writing balances unbridled passion and dispassionate research nearly as deftly as Mr. Frisell’s playing does sound and silence. He lacks Mr. Frisell’s concision—these more than 400 pages could use whittling—but his compelling story reveals aesthetic truths.

Early in Mr. Watson’s interviews with Mr. Frisell, the guitarist asks: “But what will you write about? . . . I mean, there haven’t been any fights, or anything. And all I’ve done is stay married to the same woman for the past thirty-five years.” He has a point. This tale lacks even a whiff of scandal. No major falls or comebacks. Instead of an outsize ego, we have a musician who “unshakably splits concert fees equally with his band members.”

Lacking that sort of drama, Mr. Watson invests in paradoxes of Mr. Frisell’s character that mirror those in his music: how a painfully shy boy growing up in Denver (“I had to fight all the time against closing myself off”) came to play expansive music in front of audiences; how a young man “so timid and furtive that he must have been ‘raised by deer,’ ” according to one bassist, asserted himself on the New York scene. Mr. Frisell, by now a hero to guitarists of many stripes, is, for the critic Joseph Hooper, “the refutation of all that is heroic and priapic about the guitar tradition.” For the producer Hal Willner, who brought Mr. Frisell to wider attention at Nonesuch Records, the buoyant spirit of the guitarist’s music has a constant undertow—“darkness is always, always in the mix with Bill,” he says. “It’s his home town.”

Any book about a guitarist includes a lineage of guitars. This one begins with the one Mr. Frisell created with cardboard and rubber bands as a young boy, and includes, among others, the customized Gibson ES-175 given to him by Dale Bruning, his first important mentor. Mr. Watson details revelatory communions of man and machine: volume and delay pedals “opened up a whole new world”; bending and swaying the instrument’s neck just so became “the guitar equivalent of ‘touching your finger against the edge of an album while it spins on the turntable.’ ” Mr. Frisell doesn’t play fast and furious solos, yet the technical aspect of his brilliance is noteworthy. Fellow guitarist Marc Ribot wonders “how he managed to get his guitar to produce notes that swelled in volume as they sustained, like a violinist or horn player, instead of steadily fading, like the notes on everyone else’s guitar.”

There are moments of absorbed wisdom: the great guitarist Jim Hall, with whom Mr. Frisell studied and collaborated, and who he at first emulated, instructs him to “find yourself”; another early mentor, the vibraphonist Gary Burton, tells Mr. Frisell, who went to college primarily as a clarinetist, ‘“If you are going to play an instrument, you have to commit to it solely.” Throughout, Mr. Frisell’s career seems guided by what his biographer calls “organised serendipity”: In 1980, right after Mr. Frisell borrows a Paul Motian album from the library, he gets a phone call from the great (now late) drummer, thus setting off a relationship that spanned more than 30 years.

Mr. Watson sometimes lathers his prose with too many laudatory adjectives. Yet he also reports with accuracy and style. “Motian and Manhattan were a perfect match for each other: streetwise, wise-cracking, romantic and tough.” The 1970s were, for jazz, a “fascinatingly fractured though creatively fertile decade.” He is particularly discerning when considering whether Mr. Frisell plays jazz. “I do think it matters that we say Bill plays jazz, because there is an empathy that he has for what the music means to our culture, and then what it means to his culture,” says the pianist Jason Moran. Elvis Costello, however coyly, makes a different point: “Bill Frisell is always an American folk musician . . . that is, he works with all the music made by American folk.” Mr. Watson’s 11 “Counterpoint” sections — interludes in which he and a musician consider a Frisell recording—disturb his story’s flow yet often yield insights. In one, the Irish traditional musician Martin Hayes frames Mr. Frisell’s range and gifts: “The American music story is incredible, by any standards, especially in the twentieth century. There was such an outburst of music; there’s been no other country that has created so many different styles in such a short space of time. And it just seems like Bill feels free to graze through all of them, and to find ways in which many elements can harmoniously sit together. But it’s distilled too; there’s nothing showy or more than is needed.”

At one point, Messrs. Frisell and Ribot discuss moments when the lines separating traditions blur—when, for instance, according to Mr. Frisell, “just for ten seconds,” Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, sounds like Duke Ellington.

“Is that what you look for when you’re going into that music, the moments when its borders meld?” Mr. Ribot asks.

“Yeah, where it just transcends all that stuff that’s been put on us by a record company or a writer or somebody analysing everything after the fact and then categorising it. Musicians don’t do that when they’re in the midst of playing; that stuff always comes later.”

Here, Mr. Watson, who does plenty of analyzing and categorizing, nevertheless also takes the time and care to investigate the stuff that came before. That’s where Bill Frisell lives.

Mr. Blumenfeld writes regularly about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.

Appeared in the May 21, 2022, print edition as 'Bending the Neck of Jazz Guitar'.

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