July 21, 2024


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Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music: Video, Photo

A rounded and slightly trebly tone framed by a halo of overtones, along with other sounds—fuzzy-edged or transparent, elongated or truncated, tender or piercing—trace fragments of melody. They form jagged lines, loops in gentle circles. For guitarist Bill Frisell, this amounts to a singular language, by now familiar to listeners spanning genres and generations.

At age 71, Mr. Frisell is a towering figure of jazz guitar, a status he achieved largely by evading strict notions of jazz and by confounding expectations of what a guitar should sound like. With 41 albums to his credit and appearances on more than 300 more, he built his reputation gradually, arriving at the mainstream from the outside in. And then he went back out, far enough to get branded a master of a new “Americana.” He might seem a chameleon, were his sound and approach not so consistent and commanding.

Funny an Irish-based journalist who’s written about James Joyce’s Ulysses, wounded British soldiers, and Nick Cave is the man making the auspicious title claim of Bill Frisell, the Baltimore-born guitarist tied to jazz but equally respondent to folk, fusion, classical, and whatever Elvis Costello does. And yet the atmospheres that Frisell evokes are nothing but the spirit of America at work, the idyllic quality of its skies, the rustic dust of its trails, the terror tremors of its industry.

Forty-five-plus years of forging those moods, subtle and less so, has given Watson enough ammo (or oils, if you’re feeling painterly) and Frisell enough cred to allow each other into their lives. At more than 500 pages, the dive is deep, the dramas limited, and the spirit often same-sounding. But if you dig deep and imagine the soundtrack of Frisell’s life as you read, Beautiful Dreamer opens wide and allows you into the man in full.

From the inspiration of Wes Montgomery to the tutelage of Jim Hall, from pulling away from straightforward jazz purity to leaping headfirst into John Zorn’s feedback-filled freefall, from immersing himself in the role of slyly collaborative sideman to embracing the nuanced career of a leader: Beautiful Dreamer captures every drop of Frisell’s many juices—chronologically—to make its title’s point. Surely you’ll recognize the guitarist’s voice immediately, laconic and chill. And if Frisell isn’t loud enough a speaker for the reader, fellow artists, collaborators, and fans take part in a contrapuntal series of exclusive-listening chapters; here you can enjoy Paul Simon, Gus Van Sant, Van Dyke Parks, and the late Hal Willner explaining away the complexities and simplicities of the book’s topic.

“Frisell may not see himself as any kind of pathfinder or groundbreaker, more as simply an artist trying to follow the music and be true to himself,” Watson writes. However, “[i]t’s hard to think of anyone in the contemporary era who has so comprehensively and successfully integrated as many different types of music.” In response, the author finds Frisell—from the foreword to a book of interviews with Charlie Haden—stating, “I get so tired of people trying to divide up music into categories … Names. Folk, jazz, country, hillbilly, classical, rock. Whatever.”

Yeah. Whatever. Perhaps that should have been Watson’s subtitle.

Philip Watson: Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music (Faber)

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