An encapsulation of the diverse music, if not quite the life, of a major American musician.
In an article in August 2020, about notable acoustic guitar players, I threw in a wild card with Bill Frisell. He is neither generally known as an acoustic guitar player nor anything much other than a jazz guitarist – authors privilege I suppose? However, by that point in time, it was clear that he was much more than just a jazzer and had in fact become rather hard to categorise – which seems reasonable on the basis that there is good music and not so good music and that is all you need to know. Here were my thoughts,
‘Frisell is perhaps better known as a jazz player and a prolific guitar polymath, playing in many styles and settings. He has made by my count 39 albums, featured on countless others and initially was something of an in-house player for ECM records. From 1980 on he has focussed more on folk, country music and Americana – always convincingly’.
That date of 1980 is a typo and would represent almost the whole of Frisell’s career, whereas consideration of his turn to, ‘folk, country music, and Americana, would relate to the last 20 years, starting with the 1997 release, ‘Nashville’. There is a clue in the title.
So, I felt a little vindicated when a book landed for review entitled ‘Bill Frisell – the Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music’ – though I have to admit that claim caused more than a raised eyebrow. It does seem to reflect some aspects of the book inasmuch as it can be a little overblown, with an abundance of praise, often feeling excessively fulsome. Modest man that he clearly is I feel sure Frisell would be unlikely to welcome or approve of such excess.
Author Phillip Watson was a deputy editor at GQ magazine and, ‘editor at large’, (I’m not sure what one of those is) at Esquire. He has appeared on radio and TV in the UK and Ireland whilst writing for a range of quality newspapers. This is his first full-length book and the author’s background perhaps shows in the slightly glossy style of writing – wherein for instance he goes into detail about the appearance, clothing and posture of various interviewees. This feels neither positive nor negative, merely an observation on the reviewers part. More importantly, he is clearly a fan of the guitarist and in reading the book you feel the subject and the author got on well together.
Watson’s own summary of Frisell’s 45-year career is as follows,
‘Growing up playing clarinet in orchestras and marching bands, Frisell has progressed through a remarkable range of musical personas – from devotee of jazz master Jim Hall (as hard to categorize and as experimental as Frisell in his own way) to house guitarist of estimable German label ECM, from edgy New York downtown experimentalist (alongside such as John Zorn ) to plaintive country and bluegrass picker. He has been a prolific composer and arranger and a celebrated Grammy Award Winner’. (I’d add, more recently, multimedia artist, to that impressive list).
If you are only interested in the latter part of Frisell’s career as a, ‘plaintive country and bluegrass picker’, then you would best look to page 258 (it’s a 450-page book) and beyond, where the tale of this aspect of the guitarist’s career begins to unfold. As a primer for what is to come Jerry Douglas puts it thus, ‘Bluegrass and Jazz are very compatible because they are both very improvisational musics’.
Prior to this point, it has been established that Frisell is a genuinely nice guy although he did once say, ‘fuck you‘, twice to a heckler, seemingly on behalf of a fellow artist. He is as relaxed and laid back as much of his music might suggest, not discounting his ability to tear it up if required. He has developed a distinctive style and sound and his music makes as much use of space and pause as does his conversation. He can be very stubborn if required or desired. He was brought up in middle-class comfort in an academic household and apparently is happily married in a very long term relationship. The suggestion is that he is a bit of a musical Clark Kent.
When Watson approached Frisell regarding the book the guitarist asked, ‘But what will you write about’? adding, ‘I mean there haven’t been any fights or anything (and he did play with Ginger Baker for goodness sake!). And all I’ve done is stay married to the same woman for the past thirty-five years’.
Frisell even performs, happily, with his daughter; If you want scuttlebutt look elsewhere, although it seems you are very unlikely to find any. It is a story wherein it is hard to say that you really get a feeling for the man or indeed any really key incidents in his life. His parents pass away having seemingly led fruitful lives of reasonable duration and though there are hints about the difficult final years of his mother there is not a great deal more said. He meets his wife, they marry, get on and say nice things about each other in the book. It may be that more detail on this front is not what you want from the biography of a musician.
Frisell’s early years as a jazz guitarist – it does seem a little wrong to label him as anything other than a musician – are covered in the first half of the book and I would urge the reader to have a look there in order to understand how his career developed but also – if you are not a fan – to check out some other excellent music. You will find a host of musicians ready to praise him in terms that often come close to syrupy eulogy and throughout the whole book, such comments become rather familiar. There is even a YouTube video, genuine as far as we know, of him playing with a smiling Ginger Baker! Watson has spoken to a host of people about his subject (there are 60 pages of references) but ultimately their comments rather meld into one and are given in such terms as to have limited impact. Frisell is a cracking musician and a nice guy who likes to explore and re-invent – and that just about covers it. He isn’t the hand of God.
One innovation that Watson employs, not seen before but informative, was to play various of Frisell’s albums to others and record the ensuing conversation – usually spanning 3 or 4 pages. He calls these ‘listening sessions’ or ‘counterpoints’ and they involve such as Hal Willner, Justin Vernon, Paul Simon, Gavin Bryars, Sam Amidon, Van Dyke Parks, Gus Van Sant and Rhiannon Giddens. That list of names in itself is a testimony to diversity and one of the best of these short conversations is that with Paul Simon who comes across well and has had his own, sometimes mixed, experiences of crossing musical boundaries. Rhiannon Giddens by contrast is not particularly familiar with Frisell’s work, doesn’t like it all, and uses the interview partly as a chance to promulgate some of her own ideas whilst considering ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, a, ‘cheesy’, song. One admirable quality Frisell has is that he plays what he wants and is sometimes criticised for indulging in bland nostalgia trips that blunt the inventive exploratory side of his music. I think that was what inspired his, ‘fuck yous’, to the heckler. By way of justification for Frisell’s wide-ranging tastes Watson cites Sonny Rollins, ‘Way out West’, (candidate for the most kitsch cover art of all time) and Gary Burton’s, ‘Tenneessee Firebird’, as two examples of jazz, from the late 50s’ and mid-60s’ respectively, coming together successfully to mine country music influences.
Another link with Americana / roots idioms are Irish musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill who listen to and discuss. ‘The Willies’, album. Frisell is also to be found turning up at festivals on the west coast of Ireland and playing with Hayes, Cahill and other luminaries of a similar ilk.
The book follows a pattern, throughout, of reviewing successive albums and inviting comments from those involved – and it can become a little like a list even if chronologically accurate and perhaps good for reference. It is commendable that Frisell spreads his net so wide but it is hard to keep track of the artists he works with and the many groups that are formed. Frisell has, at times, several different aggregations performing the different aspects of his musical palette. As well as being a leader his diary as, ‘gun for hire’, is clearly full to bursting point.
Other threads in the book relate to his choice of guitars (the correct number to have is apparently n + 1) where he buys them (Carmine Street Guitars in New York gets a mention), who makes them, and how much of his signature sound developed by way of an instrument with a rather floppy neck. Of such things are careers – and signature sounds – made!
There is also a description of his signature use of effects and tape loops and how having once mislaid then in transit he came to realise that maybe they were more of a hindrance than a help when he played without them. We come to understand how in his later career he became a sought after composer and was involved in a number of multi-media events and exhibitions. Frisell is, as always, prolific, eclectic and well respected.
‘Shenandoah’ is one of Frisell’s signature tunes and was recorded on the album, ‘Good Dog, Happy Man’, and the book traces a line through subsequent albums such as the aforementioned ‘Nashville’ (which rather bizarrely won Downbeats Jazz Album of the Year prize), and ‘Gone Just Like a Train’, ‘The Willies’, and ‘The Intercontinentals’, (something of a world music album). All could be of interest to readers of this website. Mention is made of key musicians such as bass player Viktor Krause (Alison‘s brother), Danny Barnes (banjo and guitar), Greg Leisz (pedal steel and assorted guitars) and on the jazz front Paul Motian (drums). He plays with Eliza Carthy, the link is made between Frisell, Lucinda Williams and respected veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd. He has contributed to albums and played with Paul Simon. Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright 3rd, Rickie Lee Jones and Ry Cooder. His choice of material ranges from the Carter Family (‘Wildwood Flower‘ is a Frisell staple), Hank Williams, John McLaughlin, and George Gershwin. Musically the world is clearly his lobster.
There’s a wealth of material on the internet and you can get to hear the maestro speak. The spaces in his music, a clearly defining feature, are nearly as evident as the spaces in his speech (a point often made in the book) where he comes over as almost painfully modest and more able to play than explain. All of which is fine but he does remain something of an elusive figure – so humble that at times he seems translucent, bent over his guitar like a scientist conducting an experiment and taking care not to stand centre or front stage. All of these character traits make a biographers job more complex.
There is a lot for music listeners in this book and as a career retrospective, it does a good job. There may not appear to be anything for Americana fans unless they are looking for new paths and a chance to listen to some enjoyable and different takes on the genre. That said, spread your wings and give Frisell a listen and read his story which if nothing else amply illustrates the redundancy of categorisation – for which Frisell and most of his associates have little time. Elvis Costello sums it up quite well, in defining Frisell as an American folk musician – ‘That is, he works with all the music made by American Folk’.