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Book Review

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer


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Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer
Philip Watson
560 Pages
ISBN: 978-0571361663
Faber & Faber

The great guitar anti-hero Bill Frisell has dreamt of perfect music—an otherworldly blend of unimaginably beautiful sounds. It may be a just a dream, but that hasn't stopped the Denver-raised musician from constantly searching, for striving for this ideal. And on an inspired night he can get close...for a while. For Frisell it is the journey, as this, the first authorized biography underlines, which is the thing.

The premise of Irish journalist Philip Watson that Frisell has changed the sound of American music is a bold one. Diehard Frisell fans may not need convincing, but sceptics may find the evidence in these pages less compelling. For every acolyte who proclaims Frisell's progressiveness, his genius, there is a detractor who would paint him as a conservative. It is to the author's credit that this tension in Frisell's narrative is a fairly constant thread in this book.

More convincing is the consistently voiced notion of Frisell as a quiet revolutionary, both as a guitarist who has changed the role and sound of the instrument, and as a composer-cum-leader. A host of Frisell admirers, musicians mostly, draw comparisons with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. Many place Frisell in a category of one.

And whilst the author is a fan of long years standing, he is no hagiographer, acknowledging, as he does, that bad reviews of albums and walkouts at gigs are all part and parcel of the Frisell equation.

Numerous are the jazz fans who bemoan Frisell's country-leanings, the seemingly oh-so-safe retro albums that pay homage to John Lennon and The Beatles, '50s and 60s pop, surf-rock, TV and film scores. Many who pine for Frisell the jazz guitarist are underwhelmed by his increasingly refined sound, one that eschews flashy solos. But this is to miss the point. 'I don't want to be a regular jazz guitarist,' Frisell told one of his rare students, Kenny Vaughan, as far back as 1972.

To judge Frisell solely through the prism of jazz, to see him primarily as a jazz guitarist, Watson understands, is to turn a blind eye to his evolution. 'I'm definitely moving away from the postmodern jazz direction I followed for years, but I don't really know where I'm going,' the guitarist told DownBeat in 1999.

Where Frisell has gone, as the book's linear history makes abundantly clear, is every which way. His evolution towards a very personal, inclusive language has been gradual yet striking.

Frisell began expanding his vocabulary from early on in his career, utilizing unusual combinations of instruments—tuba, cello, accordion—in his combos. To the language of jazz, he infused elements of marching band rhythms, ambient and country textures. Loops and pedal effects soon came to be his signature. For all the influence of Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Sonny Rollins and Davis, Frisell has always taken a wide-angle-lens approach to music.

Whilst some may perceive this as Frisell raiding disparate genres, for the guitarist they are all part of the same source: ...'for me, jazz is not so much a style as a way of thinking, a process of transforming what's around you...I'm just trying not to shut anything out,' Frisell told the author in 2012.

It may irk the jazz police that Frisell has amassed DownBeat's Guitarist of the Year award fifteen times or that he scooped a Grammy for Best Jazz Album for the country-inspired Nashville (Elektra Nonesuch, 1997), but it is seems to be certain people's expectations, rather than Frisell's forays into folk, country, contemporary chamber, blues and the so-called 'World Music' of The Intercontinentals, (Nonesuch, 2003) that raise the 'Ah, but is it jazz?' conundrum.

Collaborations with Lee Konitz, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, Jim Hall, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek, Dave Holland, Arild Anderson, Jim Pepper, Billy Hart...not to mention his thirty-year association in the remarkable trio alongside Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, should probably be proof enough of Frisell's jazz credentials. This, however, is only one face of a multi-faceted musician. As the author testifies, the roll call of musicians working in other areas of music whose projects Frisell has shaped, colored and uplifted is little short of extraordinary.

A series of listening sessions, where artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Rhiannon Giddens, Gavin Bryars, Van Dyke Parks, Sam Amidon, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill respond to Frisell's music—prompted by the author—provides often penetrating insights into Frisell's artistry, originality and wide-reaching influence. 'It's like he's another animal entirely that just happens to be holding a guitar,' says Dave King of The Bad Plus. And which band members all have their favourite Frisell song immortalized in tattoos? Read on.

With unprecedented access to family, friends, and collaborators, Watson traces Frisell's family roots, migrations and formative stomping grounds, unravelling the inherited character traits that are at once Frisell's strengths and flaws. Interviews with those closest to Frisell reveal a man far more determined, stubborn and articulate than his shy, unassuming demeanour and elliptical speech might lead one to believe.

Watson, who clearly earned Frisell's trust and friendship, captures the humor, tenderness and loving nature that also permeates Frisell's music...and a certain obsessive streak that has seen Frisell amass over sixty guitars. It is the depth and complexity of Frisell's character that Watson patiently constructs that is the book's greatest strength, as getting a handle on what makes Frisell tick is key to understanding his musical choices. To this end Beautiful Dreamer... reads like a definitive work.

All the important milestones in Frisell's career are relayed and dissected, accompanied by a steady stream of colorful anecdotes: his year in Belgium in the late 1970s; the ECM years; his association with John Zorn and New York's downtown scene; his most important ensembles...

Frisell's primary influences have been well documented over the years, but it is interesting to learn the profound effect that lesser-known names such as Dale Bruning, Mike Miller and Michael Gregory Jackson have also had on Frisell's development. In peeling back the layers of Frisell's music the author unearths a wealth of leads to other, interrelated musical stories. Piecing together Frisell's musical jigsaw is half the fun.

Any budding musicians reading Beautiful Dreamer will take varying degrees of comfort in learning of Frisell's periods of self-doubt, anxiety and frustration. Tales of a younger Frisell cleaning stores and factories at night to make ends meet might chime with many a scuffling musician.

Likewise, impressions of Frisell backing an impressionist/comedian, playing in a band attired in three-piece flared-trouser, orange polyester suits, playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, or working in an Elvis cover band are all evidence that nobody has an easy road to success. Being whipped on stage by a dominatrix is one of the less likely trials that Frisell has also been forced to endure. Disappointingly, incriminating photographs are not included.

The extent to which Frisell has 'changed the sound of American music' is debateable, which is in part, one suspects, the author's aim. Where there is no doubt, however, is that Frisell's ability to transcend genre, race and eras in his music undoubtedly qualifies him as an American original.

A revelatory, roots and branches portrait of one of America's greatest synthesizers of musical ideas.

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