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Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer


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The following is a revised excerpt from "Chapter 20: Frislandia" of Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer by Philip Watson (Faber & Faber, 2022).

Bill Frisell's music has always, right from the beginning, raised critical questions about definition and classification, about the very nature of genre. What is it that Frisell is playing, and how might we begin to describe it?

The most common descriptor, of course, is that Frisell is a jazz guitarist. 'I don't know if it matters that you call it jazz, but it's definitely jazz to me,' says [guitarist and Wilco band member] Nels Cline. 'Even though I'm certainly one of the most impure and probably poorly trained of musicians, I can hear the improvisatory coherence and vision of Bill's music, the way he plays with great harmonic awareness of what that jazz vocabulary and syntax entails.'

[Guitarist] Marc Ribot agrees. 'Essentially I'm a rock player who has been playing jazz for a long time and has a huge affection for jazz... some types of jazz,' he explains. 'But Bill has succeeded in playing jazz—on jazz's terms. He actually plays jazz and, while he can do a lot of things, he embodies those values. There's something just very basic about his understanding of time—something existential that happens before you get into figuring out how to play notes.'

[Trumpeter and cornetist] Ron Miles positions Frisell firmly in the jazz pantheon: 'I think Bill is truly one of the greatest musicians to ever play this music, and I say that without qualification—not, like, in the post-1950 era, just period. I place him in the company of masters such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk; his playing is so personal, and he is important enough to our generation that knowing his approach is essential to being a contemporary jazz musician—it's just one of the languages you would know.'

Miles, however, has a corollary. 'I think the question about whether Bill plays jazz depends on how reductive you want that word to be,' he continues. 'Because it's true that, when you hear Bill play with a conventional jazz rhythm section, I don't know that it really works, that it really shows off his gifts. He needs a certain type of musician to complement him, someone who understands the wider universe that he's carved out for himself.'

Frisell's own position on The Jazz Question is... mostly that he'd rather not have the conversation. If he is wedded to anything, it is to the Keith Jarrett doctrine—that, as the improvising and classical pianist once told the great oral historian Studs Terkel, 'What jazz signifies to me is the freedom to be yourself.'

Except that, understandably perhaps, the question is a common line of enquiry. The subject arose in a 2002 interview with Francis Davis: '"Oh, boy," Frisell said when I put that question to him, though he must have known it was coming. Jazz, he finally said, "is still the best way of describing... the mechanics of what I do." He said, "If I have a pedal steel guitar in my group, someone can say, 'Oh, then it must be country music.' But that's just on the surface."'

Frisell said something similar to DownBeat in the interview that saluted Nashville winning the magazine's 1998 Jazz Album of the Year. 'My inspiration comes from all over the map,' he said, '[But] deep in my heart, no matter what anyone calls it, no matter what the rules are, I approach my music from a jazz sensibility.'

'That word [jazz] has so many...' Frisell once said to me, pausing. 'It will mean a million different things to a million different people. To me, jazz means the musicians who've inspired me and still inspire me, who I've learned from and still learn from. For me, it's not copying them, or anything like that, or imitating something that was created long ago... but trying to imagine what they would be thinking if they were in the same situation as me now. When I first started to listen to and play jazz, it was a place where anything was possible. These musicians weren't following any rules about what the music was supposed to be. They took all of the information that was around them, and they used this process to transfer their experience into music, to find their own thing. That's part of the struggle. That's what I'm trying to do.'

There are two main strands to Frisell's response: the ideas of tradition and process.

Frisell told interviewer Radhika Philip that he feels deeply connected to and respectful of the jazz tradition and its contribution and consciousness—what the music means musically, culturally, socially and politically: 'There's a tradition in the music that for me is sacred. I mean, there are people who I am very serious about.' He mentions again his artistic standard-bearers: Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. 'I acknowledge the body of music that these masters are feeding me, you know... I'm trying to keep what they were doing in mind... A part of the music was to move with the head, and I'm trying to think that way.'

Jason Moran also sees Frisell as firmly part of a tradition. '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,' the pianist says. 'It's important for me to acknowledge, and I think it's important for him to acknowledge, that the root of the music, and the circumstances that created it, are not separate, you know. They are together. So I think, considering the history of what jazz has done, for the world, it's important to put Bill as a part of it.'

The second concept Frisell touches upon is the idea that jazz is fundamentally a widely applicable process, rather than a rigidly individual style. Other musicians who have worked broadly within the form have made similar observations: Pat Metheny once expanded on his idea that jazz is more a verb than a noun by adding, 'It's a process, a way of thinking, not a result'; 'Music isn't a style; it's an idea,' declared Ornette Coleman.

It's the notion that jazz is a transformative art, that it can bring distinctly different alchemies and perspectives—rhythms, melodies, harmonies, emotions, moods, meanings and contradictions—to almost any piece of music in any genre; that, in the right hands, it can reframe and make new. 'The process can be applied to anything—country songs, arias, anything,' Sonny Rollins once said in JazzTimes. 'This is what makes jazz the greatest music in the world. It's a force of nature; it has no boundaries.'

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