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Read an exclusive chapter excerpt of 'Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer,' a vivid biography by Philip Watson

Bill Frisell
Monica Jane Frisell
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Bill Frisell, in 2016.

"People kept saying to me: 'One note and you know it's Bill Frisell,'" recalls Philip Watson, the veteran journalist and editor whose thorough and contemplative biography of the guitarist, Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer, is out this week on Faber & Faber.

"I think I quote Tom Junod, the GQ writer, who compiled this long list of adjectives used to describe Bill Frisell's music," Watson adds, speaking from his home in Cork, Ireland. "And it seemed that different critics and writers took very different approaches to that. And so I thought to myself, 'What is his sound? You know, what are his qualities?'"

Those questions are central to a chapter in the book titled "Song of Myself," which we're proud to excerpt below. Elsewhere in Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer, Watson illuminates Frisell's formative years as a listener; traces the path of his illustrious musical career; and checks in with an array of admirers, from Paul Simon to the late Hal Willner. "The sound of Bill Frisell is the sound of him being absolutely honest with who he is as a musician," Watson says, "and with all the feelings and emotions that he has."

The Bill Frisell Trio, with Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, will appear with a guest, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, on Saturday at Roulette in Brooklyn. (Frisell will sign copies of the book after the show.)

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'Song of Myself,' from Philip Watson's Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer (Faber & Faber)

‘Sometimes my interpretation will spring from the words, even though I’m doing it instrumentally,’ Frisell said in JazzTimes. ‘Thinking about the words will bring this inner meaning to the thing when I play it and hopefully that will come out when someone is listening. I used to play this John Hiatt song, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and when I played it I was actually hearing his voice and words and I was trying to mimic that. Or when I played Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”, I totally tried to have my guitar be her voice.’

Because of this, the sound you often hear when Bill Frisell is playing is the sound of a melody, however true or twisted. It’s like a version of the Joe Zawinul paradox, one of his guiding principles for the music of Weather Report: ‘we always solo, we never solo’. Frisell never offers the grandstanding solo, the easy display of proficiency that generates a whooping applause. He is always playing and not playing the melody; the two are organically connected, so much so that you are often unsure where one ends and the other begins.

Beautiful Dreamer

‘It’s not a stretch to put Bill in that category of musician who has transcended technique and innovation to just become so purely musical that only the song remains,’ says singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry. ‘That’s what you end up hearing: the song, the story, the movie that plays in your mind when you hear it.’

Frisell feels it is the melody that ‘puts a tune in its own world,’ marks out its individuality and potential. ‘Instead of discarding it, the melody stays in there and connects with your own voice,’ Frisell said in 1998. ‘Lately, I have been learning bluegrass tunes, and it amazes me how good bluegrass players will improvise around the shape of the melody... In the music of my favourite jazz players, I have always heard this approach. No matter how far Miles went, I could always hear that the melody was affecting what he was playing. Monk played the melody all the time.’

Frisell also tries to honour the architecture of a song, investigate its shape and structure; it’s the reason he has played certain tunes again and again throughout his career — Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s ‘Days of Wine and Roses,’ Thelonious Monk’s ‘Epistrophy,’ the nineteenth-century American folk song ‘Shenandoah,’ Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times Come Again No More,’ ‘Baba Drame’ by Malian singer and guitarist Boubacar Traoré, and Lennon and McCartney’s ‘In My Life.’

It’s the same with his own numerous compositions. Frisell wants to try to understand all the inner workings of a song, the nuances of its melody, the internal dynamics of its harmonies, the dimensions of its form and construction. Like great singers, he wants to internalise the song, play it from inside, feel that it is, as he once said, ‘part of my bloodstream’. And then wholly make it his own, make it new.

‘With his conception about melody and form, Bill’s a real song player,’ saxophonist Joe Lovano told the website All About Jazz ‘He can play the way he plays within any piece of music. A tune doesn’t hold him back.’

***

The super-smart and many-sided guitarist Nels Cline tells a story about Bill Frisell trying out a new guitar in a music store in Seattle. ‘The way I heard it is that it was a Saturday, late morning, so the store had probably just opened, and Bill was sitting in a corner playing a first-position C chord, and a first-position G chord, over and over again, really slowly on this guitar. And some hotshot guy — one of those annoying regular-customer guys that hang out in guitar stores — came up to him and said something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, man, that’s cool, but hey, check this out!” And he took the guitar out of Bill’s hands and started playing some kind of fancy crap. And Bill looked at him, and nodded, and smiled, and said, “Yeah, wow, that’s great” — and got up and left. ‘And the guys in the music store called the customer guy over and shouted at him, “Like, what the f--k is wrong with you? That was Bill Frisell!”’

Soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy, who spent a lifetime exploring the music of Thelonious Monk, once said, ‘you go through the complex to get to the simple,’ and another important attribute of the Frisell sound is its deceptive simplicity. His guitar colours are the result of deep understanding and hard-won knowledge, and yet they have a vibrant clarity to them, as if the music has been distilled somehow and is naturally transparent, like water in a rock pool. It takes enormous skill and some daring to play as sparely and directly as Frisell does and yet retain all the subtleties, shades, implications and abstractions of a fuller form; ‘expansive miniatures’ is how violinist and singer Jenny Scheinman describes the interplay.

That process allows for another facet of Frisell’s sound: its intrinsic sense of space. Partly this comes, as we have seen, from the way Frisell approaches speech and conversation: there are pauses, gaps, lacunae. It’s the same with many musicians, especially improvisers: they play, and often aspire to play, like they talk.

Bill Frisell at Russ and Daughters
Jonathan Chimene
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WBGO
Guitarist Bill Frisell, performing at the New York Jewish delicatessen Russ & Daughters Cafe in 2018.

‘I think it . . . there’s a natural . . . way I have of speaking . . . I hesitate and I think and I . . . it takes me a while to get . . . the thoughts formed in my mind and to get ’em to come out,’ Frisell said, laughing, in 2010, in a video interview with website Big Think. ‘And the same thing happens when I’m playing music. There’s . . . I’m thinking and . . . there’s . . . I’ll hesitate or I’ll . . . [five-second pause] . . . so there’s a natural rhythm that I have that happens when I play. But then also, I mean, you can’t just . . . the, the silence is . . . as important as the . . . you know, there’s dark and light, and you can’t see one or the other if . . . you know, they cancel each other out, so . . . I mean, if there’s sound, there has to be . . . no sound, to go with it, before it will mean anything, I think, so.’

This is an archetypal Frisell response (and one that, rather unfairly, I’ve transcribed verbatim). But you can hear that, if it was put to music, it would sound very much like a Frisell composition or solo: a mix of statements, signals, suggestions... and space.

This sense of openness also derives from Frisell’s economical approach to playing. Put simply, he uses far fewer notes than most instrumentalists, particularly other guitarists. Frisell maintains that he has never managed to develop the requisite technique to play pyrotechnically. He can play runs of fast notes when a melody demands or a stream of eighth notes to add dynamic contrast to a solo, but he is just not temperamentally, or even physically, manually, given to the showy, speedy or virtuosic: ‘Sometimes I feel like whatever style I have is basically the inability to do something else,’ he has often said.

‘I like Charlie Parker, but I lean more to spaced-out stuff; it seems to fit with my bodily rhythms,’ Frisell explained in JazzTimes. ‘I discovered [early on] that by implying some notes, the sound became bigger rather than smaller. And I learned to leave enough space so that when you do play something it has more weight. That’s something I’ve been working on ever since.’

Frisell often waits before he improvises; he is trying to make each note count and mean something, especially in relation to the music that has come before. There is an overarching sense of structure and connection, even when he is not playing.

‘Bill’s one of the few so-called jazz musicians I could name who I listen to every note he plays,’ says Joe Henry. ‘It’s never for me a flurry that’s just there to create expanse. I feel like every note and chord is so considered that it strikes my ears as conversation. It’s just like someone’s speaking voice, and that’s a completely unique gift, I think. His sensibility is so unwaveringly sublime, and I can count on one hand how many musicians I think operate at that level, where just every choice they’re making seems essential. Nothing about it, to my ear, seems gratuitous – he never just plays to take up space. He’s only playing to amplify the drama of a moment.’

The pianist Jason Moran, who has played with Frisell in a variety of contexts, also uses a comparison from the world of art and line-making to describe the guitarist’s soundworld. ‘His approach is about making exactly the right etch into the plate,’ Moran told me. ‘In that way, he goes against the grain of how most guitarists play their instrument: his music is about economy, texture, and making each mark work. Bill is a genius at reducing the sound to one single note that has the power of three or four or more.’

Moran says he even gets the same sensation of space when Frisell plays more rapidly, more aggressively – when he ‘shreds,’ to use the guitar vernacular. ‘Bill shreds in a different way; it’s a well-paced shred,’ he says in the documentary Bill Frisell: A Portrait. ‘But it also speaks volumes about what his sound is too, and his intention behind all the sounds he makes. It’s an approach that’s careful, and sensitive, and that I think separates him from the bunch — by a far distance.’

Bill Frisell
Jonathan Chimene
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WBGO

Frisell’s dedication to using and respecting space in his music – for it being irreducibly part of his sound – goes further, however. Like Miles Davis, John Cage, Samuel Beckett and Mark Rothko, he is someone who seems to understand the profound presence and importance of silence – that music not only emerges from and returns to silence, but that it is shaped, charged and defined by it. ‘Music is the silence between the notes,’ Claude Debussy once famously declared.

In Thelonious Monk’s music, silences are not simple caesuras; they are present, and part of the melody. It was Monk who said that ‘what you don’t play can be more important than what you do play’. It’s a philosophy that has led many to see strong parallels in Frisell’s sound, to him being described as ‘the Thelonious Monk of the electric guitar’.

‘There is a balance of powerfully oppositional forces, a sense of what I call “asymmetrical equilibrium”, in both Monk’s and Bill’s music,’ says journalist, poet and record producer David Breskin. ‘It’s there in the juxtaposition between melody and space, and between rough and smooth. There’s a kind of beauty in Bill’s playing, but, especially back then [in the eighties], there was also a kind of disorder, an anarchic feeling or danger in his playing, which I think Monk had too. Bill has that kind of idiosyncratic uniqueness that Monk had, that voice. He is of himself and only of himself, and there is a world in him. It’s the difference between being a musician and being an artist.’

Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas also has a story about Bill Frisell. It involves Douglas driving home from a Frisell gig with his then nineteen-year-old stepson, a guitarist who is mostly ‘into virtuosic instrumental metal players such as Yngwie Malmsteen.’

‘I’ve been taking him to hear Bill since he was about eight years old, and he says, “Well, what ... Wow. What . . . What the hell is Frisell doing up there?” ‘And I go, “What do you mean?” ‘And he says, “Well, it’s so incredible, all the time, but he’s hardly doing anything.”’ Douglas laughs. ‘For me, that puts it perfectly; that’s the whole point. I just said to him, “You nailed it! Yes. Correct. The secret’s out.”’

***

Those who feel a close connection to Frisell’s music have a way of talking about his sound that is at once physical and visceral, tangible and intangible. One recurring idea is that his playing suggests solid bodies that are strong yet fragile, and are in constant motion. ‘His music is very anchored and yet it can also feel like it’s about to fall,’ says Carole d’Inverno. ‘It’s like things are continually cantilevering.’

‘When I think about Bill’s sound, it’s almost more like a sculptural thing, like a shape or a feeling,’ says guitarist Mary Halvorson, accenting certain words in the way she might one of her inimitable solos. ‘It’s hard for me to put it into words, because it’s very complex, and it feels like he’s gotten to something that nobody else has gotten to. There’s a lot of feeling and emotion expressed through his music, which I think many, many people connect with.’

Jason Moran agrees. ‘Bill builds these forms that rise up, and then come tumbling down – and then are lain on their sides,’ he says. ‘He’s like a Zen architect; he makes these structures that, as a player, you have multiple doors into.’

The same can be said for Frisell’s listeners. For many, the Frisell sound is an echo and reverberation of his particular personality, its dimensions and complexities, its constructions and alleyways. Others talk about the honesty and humility in that sound, an integrity and generosity, a world of freedom and possibility.

‘He’s got a lot of layers,’ says Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s tour sound engineer and perhaps the ultimate Frisell listener. ‘Yeah, he has ego – he’s a performer, he’s on stage, and he loves it when people clap – but he’s also the most humble person I know. He’s very at one with who he is and what he’s doing. And I think that’s rare.’

Bill Frisell’s sound creates a world that is powerfully direct and yet beautifully infinite. It’s like Frisell is a facilitator, the guardian of a precious space that values participation above performance, group contribution above individual expression, and the dynamics of trust, change, progress and discovery above all else. It is music as a healing force, something larger than itself. Music, as Frisell has stated on a number of occasions, is good.

Bill Frisell
Carole d’Inverno
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‘He knows exactly what he wants out of his music,’ drummer Joey Baron told Jazziz, ‘but the thing that’s really great about it is that he lets people explore what they want to do with it first. That one little stage of letting the person do what they would do under their own judgement – that’s really generous. He’s willing to go down the road to explore where that takes you.’

It’s as if Frisell is saying, ‘This is my contribution, this is what I’ve written, and this is what I mean by this music.’ But after that, he actively encourages band members to augment and amplify the music, to reshape and transform it in ways he could never have imagined; he wants and champions this as part of the process, as part of his fellow musicians taking some control, as part of the adventure, the mystery.

It works the same way when Frisell is collaborating with others, with their vision. That open-hearted generosity is there again: his sound makes the overall sound more spacious and boundless; he is there to support and advance, but also to open up unexpected horizons and new possibilities.

‘He is so big-hearted, so invariably and authentically kind, and you can’t miss it, but it surprised me,’ says Joe Henry. ‘I just don’t expect most musicians to be that uniquely . . . emotionally available. And, of course, once you register that, you understand that what you’re predominantly hearing in Bill’s playing and sound, in his music, is a deep empathy and real compassion.’

***

At the end of a gig many years ago, a fan of Dave Holland’s wonderfully vibrant and lyrical playing came up to him, pointed to his double bass, which was lying on its side on the stage, and proclaimed, ‘Wow, your bass sounds wonderful, man.’ Saying nothing, Holland bent down, cradled his ear to the instrument and, smiling, replied, ‘Really? I can’t hear anything.’

The song of Bill Frisell is ultimately, of course, not the sound of his guitar at all. It is the sound of his mind and body and intelligence and imagination; as Irish fiddle maestro Martin Hayes told me, ‘Music doesn’t come from your instrument; it comes from you.’ The challenge is to move beyond the guitar, the song, the genre, even the music itself, and play thoughts and feelings and ideas – to play yourself, and then play beyond yourself.

Bill Frisell
Jonathan Chimene
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Bill Frisell performing at The Jazz Gallery in New York.

‘Bill has this huge vision for what music could be, what a melody could be, what rhythm could set things in motion in a lot of different ways,’ says bass player Tony Scherr. ‘He’s got a really . . . huge range of possibilities and expansive ideas. It’s a world in itself, a world within a world.’

That vision was always there, it seems. ‘He could open a gate that not everyone can,’ says Steve Houben, who played with Frisell both in Berklee and Belgium in the late seventies. ‘I don’t want to talk too much about the philosophy of it, or mention chakras, but Bill not only has a wonderful intellect and imagination, he also has something that he can open that allows the music to flow through him. It’s all there in the way he is and the way he sounds. And that’s rare.’

And it remains there, whatever the circumstances. In 2014, during a concert at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, Frisell was an hour into a set with his free-flowing quintet of violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and Rudy Royston on drums when the main power supply went out. Having already borrowed a Gibson acoustic guitar from his longstanding producer and manager Lee Townsend, who was in the audience, Frisell and his unplugged quartet played on, under the venue’s emergency lighting, completing the concert to enthusiastic applause.

Claudia Engelhart was, of course, there — listening from a redundant soundboard. ‘It was beautiful, and it sounded totally like him,’ she says. ‘That’s how strong he is, how solid, and stubborn – there’s no moving him, you know. That’s where his power is, because he can transcend anything and any kind of music in any kind of situation. No matter what, it’s always going to sound like Bill.’

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Philip Watson's Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer is available now from Faber & Faber.

The Bill Frisell Trio performs a book-release concert with a special guest, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, on Saturday at Roulette in Brooklyn.