Philip Watson’s “Beautiful Dreamer”, a biography of Bill Frisell

In 1988 I had a Raoul Dufy poster of a painting on the wall above my bed, a racetrack in a green haze. The men, women and horses were all drawn in heavy, sometimes multiple, outlines, whilst the colours within seemed to blend into the background, producing a strange kind of perspective and intensity to their figures. I bought “Power Tools: Strange Meeting” that same year, and since the record and the poster became entwined in my daily routine, one seemed to melt into the other. It was my first Bill Frisell record: the thickness of the lines, how they became transformed, delayed, reversed through effects that seemed to be tamed, made musical somehow through sharp reflexes – this seemed to fly in the face of jazz orthodoxy and yet for me, it was pure improvisation. Frisell made pure melody out of the music of chance. And I loved the fact that this was a jazz ROCK record, finding joy in pure sound and, in Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson, a rhythm section that sat right on the boundary between groove and chaos and gleefully stomped back and forth between the two. It was all about how flat lines drawn with movement can jump off the page, out of the speakers.

Philip Watson’s superbly evocative biography, “Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed The Sound Of American Music” wears its heart on its sleeve in the full title, focusing on the work and the process by which it comes into being, as well as perhaps the state induced in the listener. Sounds and dreams feature heavily in titles, in Frisell’s own recollections, but also in the way the book unfolds. The story of his life is told in a mixture of straightforward narrative and interviews, and fans will be keen to hear about this winding road to stardom, but this is frequently interspersed with the numbered “Counterpoint” chapters, where various musicians listen to Frisell’s music: like a blindfold test without the blindfold. Followed by corresponding chapters in Frisell’s life relating to each recording, they give the impression of flashbacks, looking back on each period from the present day as the biography progresses chronologically. These range from die hard devotees like Sam Amidon (“…we had a kind of Platonic ideal about what the perfect album would be. Good Dog, Happy Man was both that vision and ideal.”) to former employer Paul Simon (“…trying to hear the thing that’s just beyond what you hear”) to composer Gavin Bryars, who uses the opportunity to have an amusingly bitchy dig at composer John Adams. Bluegrass star Rhiannon Giddens confesses half way through the interview that she doesn’t know Frisell’s music at all. This could have been cut – I’m glad it wasn’t, it adds to the rough edges, the warts and all feeling.

Throughout the book, sequences of events may be intercut with present day reminiscences from Frisell himself, words will jump in and out as individual thoughts, interrupting the prose, cutting into the timeline like sudden snatches of sound captured and repositioned – like, in many ways, Frisell’s own use of transformed loops. This is not so much a deep dive as a prolonged soak: an inscription at the book’s opening from Rahsaan Roland Kirk talks about the need to look back to move forward, and there’s a feeling that Watson has taken this idea seriously, poetically even, allowing a kind of ebb and flow of events, thoughts and insights. This also takes its cue from Frisell’s famously hesitant vocal delivery, which is unfailingly effective whether humorous or otherwise.

One of the things I liked most was how the writing itself is never stifled by the duty to render the subject in “matter of fact” language – there’s no pedantry, date checking, number crunching. Like the music, there’s a haze around the clarity. There are many examples: my favourite describes Bill’s marriage to Carol D’Inverno, where interviews with them both are interspersed with Bill’s impression, rendered phonetically to great comic effect, of the Sherrif’s Southern accent. It captures his humour as he recounts Carol trying to repeat the words in a language she didn’t understand at the time, spoken in an accent that clearly exacerbated the problem. It’s a refreshing change of pace, but one that feels totally appropriate in this kind of storytelling with its shifts in tone and time. This is a writer who understands improvisers.

Another stand out chapter, “Song Of Myself”, takes its title from the iconic Walt Whitman poem and describes, not without a little self deprecation, various journalists’ attempts to describe the “Frisell sound”. A list of adjectives like “oozing”, “cloudy”, “enveloping”….”drizzly”….(drizzly?????) serve to remind us that writing about music is not easy, and rarely relates to what is actually happening. As the author says, almost tangibly exhausted by the sheer indulgence of language used to describe Frisell’s guitar:

The dilemma of how to best address and encapsulate Frisell’s sound has remained the same…where to stand on the spectrum between billowing clouds and a laughing child?”

Perhaps just talking about how impossible it is remains the only strategy. Frisell is a rarity among improvisers, finding wide appeal outside the jazz and new music community, and a lot of that is to do with the elusive “sound”, which it’s easy to forget is always a combination of tone and the notes within it. Perhaps this is why no one ever sounds like him, but many are influenced.

For me, Frisell’s sound is an accumulation of inherited passions that, through force of will and artistry, have somehow fused together. He seems to have an ability to add whatever grabs his attention into the mix. Perhaps the problem is that writers want the words to describe something that is always changing. After abandoning processing and pedals almost completely for a while, his renewed set up now has a more intimate feel, closer perhaps to an acoustic blend, but as the 2014 “Silent Movie” solo session showed, the bite and the chaos are still bubbling under the surface. “Music IS”, a more recent solo recording from 2018, seems perhaps more controlled and tune-orientated, but the use of effects contributes to its beauty in a different way. Tunes have always been paramount in Frisell’s music, however far out it goes. Revisiting the bluegrass infused “Bill Frisell And The Willies”, it was hard to resist the sheer hit-making catchiness of “Everybody Loves Everybody”, with its ever so slightly off centre opening that creates just enough tension between the simplest of chords, the earthiest of melodies. In many ways, one can follow the changes in his sound directly through the recordings he’s made with the longstanding Paul Motian trio with Joe Lovano, the last couple of albums on ECM allowing much more of the pure telecaster sound through. There are many sides to Bill Frisell, but in some ways, as his playing deepens and matures, they seem like multiple views of the same thing. The crunches have certainly become subtler but we should all know better than to think they have disappeared completely.

Every fan has their favourite periods. I have a special fondness for the eighties and early nineties, where John Zorn’s experiments seemed to throw everything up in the air – artists like Frisell, Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz seemed to find their own subsequent ways through the aftermath, each providing fascinating alternatives to the orthodox jazz set up, which proclaimed the supremacy of the nineteen fifties as a gold standard. On Frisell’s “Before We Were Born”, the opening title track goes from an almost neo-classical poise and elegance, only to suddenly lurch into a groove which made me think of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. This is all in one track.

Much is made of the relief of finally having “nothing to prove” as an artist, but this record, with its almost impossible scope, has the joy of having something to prove written all over it. It’s a thrilling ride: the albums that followed, “Is That You?” and “Where In The World?”, are two of my favourite records of all time. They don’t get much praise here in comparison to later recordings, but reading about your heroes always involves confronting differing opinions. It’s like a sport. I had to resist the temptation to look up all my Desert Island Frisell albums in the index and see if I was right about how much I liked them. For me, all the later stuff reverberates with the distant sound of that revolution, however “safe” it might seem.

There’s a particular fondness here for “Gone, Just Like A Train”, “Good Dog, Happy Man” and “Blues Dream”, perhaps representing an ideal confluence of restraint and adventure, and the subtlety of the writing and playing is stunning. Frisell puts out records at such a rate, however, that they only ever seem like snapshots of a huge work in progress. It’s interesting to read how even Nonesuch Records, who surely were the dream contract, couldn’t get stuff out quickly enough for him and he eventually moved on. He’s gracious and grateful throughout for how fortunate he feels, but there are hard luck stories throughout, including a particularly gruelling solo session for ECM under the claustrophobic gaze of Manfred Eicher as well as difficulties with health and family life through overwork (yes success has its price). It’s all a timely reminder that things are not as simple, or as peachy, as they might seem. There’s a nice sense of Frisell as the guy just playing guitar while stuff happens around him. The account of an incident onstage involving Naked City, various performance artists, Arto Lindsay, a giant dildo, a reading of “120 Days Of Sodom” and a microphone used for purposes other than amplification is too good to recount verbatim here. It’s not currently part of any conservatoire curriculum, and that is their loss.

At the end of the book, Watson quotes some lines from Frisell’s website marking a gig returning to his childhood neighbourhood in Denver:

“So many seeds planted. Still growing. Trying to get it together. Just getting started.”

For Bill Frisell, the search and the struggle to keep the music fresh, continues as it always must. It’s also a lifelong search to find journalists who understand your process as much as the finished product, who are willing to let you tell the story of your work without telling you how you did it. The sound, and the dreams that spring from it, seems as good a way of describing that process as any, and this seems to me to be at the heart of the book. With “Bill Frisell: Beautiful Dreamer”, perhaps the search to find a writer who can mirror that process in words, has come to a satisfying end.