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Bill Frisell discusses pandemic isolation, the hardships of touring and the experience of granting full access to biographer Philip Watson for a comprehensive new biography.
When I interviewed Bill Frisell in March 2019, the renowned guitarist was in a North Carolina hotel, preparing to drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains for a gig in Knoxville, Tennessee. As the conversation wound down, Frisell — an indefatigable road warrior over the past four decades — spoke about the pleasures of living in New York, where he’d moved two years earlier after 30 years in Seattle. Then he said: “I’m talking about New York, but I seem to be traveling more than ever. I hope I’ll be home someday.”
A year later, almost to the day, COVID-19 locked down the world. For the next 18 months, Frisell, with all the down-time he could handle, stayed put at his Brooklyn house. He composed and practiced songs, live-streaming solo ruminations from his music room. He convened his trio for several virtual concerts, and, as life gradually returned to a semblance of normal, some live events. But only in early 2022 did Frisell start to tour again in earnest.
“The weirdest thing was suddenly not being able to be with people,” Frisell says when I catch up with him again via Zoom on April 22, three weeks and change after his 71st birthday, in a hotel room in Sewanee, Tennessee, the morning after a concert with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Gerald Clayton in Lloyd’s recently formed Chapel Trio.
“That’s my relationship with the human race, my friends — it’s about playing together. From the first moment I played any kind of music, when they gave me a triangle or a whistle in kindergarten, or playing in the school band — you’re doing this thing with people. When I got my guitar, the first thing I did was go to my friend’s house to play together. That’s what it’s been, nothing but that, my whole life.
“So suddenly: OK, you can’t play with anybody now. It was traumatic. But I also realized the connection I still have just with the instrument itself. The first thing I did was take my guitar and start playing and writing and trying to learn new tunes. That was good for a minute. I wrote a lot of music. I don’t know what’s going to ever happen with all those pages and pages, or even if there’s anything there worthwhile. But it doesn’t matter if there’s something good. Just the fact that I was able to do that was good. It reassured me that music still has the ability to save me, which is what it’s been doing my whole life.”
Frisell mentions a just-concluded two-week run of one- and two-nighters on which he and his recent trio-of-choice — with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston — sojourned from Oregon to Denver, his home town.“We’ve been playing for a long time and I think more and more we’re getting a language together,” he says. “There’s this joy now, getting the chance to be back together again, with an audience. But there were moments when I had an inkling that something happened that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had that time off. Seeds were planted somehow that are coming out now in a good way.”
Frisell had flown to Tennessee two days earlier. That afternoon he’d return to New York, only to leave a few days thereafter for three weeks of one-nighters in the U.K. and on the Continent with his long-standing trio of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
“The travel part is rough,” Frisell responds to a question concerning his attitude to road life. “It’s such a strange way to do things. You think about the time you spend getting somewhere … .” Then he launches a soliloquy on what he’d gone through to get to Tennessee.
“It’s not even that long a flight — an hour and a half or two hours. But I woke up early in the morning. I try to get packed. I’ve got to make sure I washed my clothes, whatever. I get a car. I go to Newark Airport. I stand in line. I stand in another line. Then I stand in another line. Then I stand up for a while. Then I sit down. Try to find a coffee or something to get all jacked up. Then I stand in another line. Then I get on the plane; a woman yells at me because I’m trying to bring my guitar on the plane. Then, of course, my guitar fits — I put it right where I thought it would fit. Then I sit down, and then my elbow hurts because the thing is too small. And then there’s no food and I haven’t eaten.
“Then I get to the next place and nobody’s wearing masks, and I’m worried that I’m going to get COVID and then I’m going to have to cancel the tour. And then I go to the baggage claim, and then I wait for the bags. And something is wrong with the conveyor belt, so you wait; you’re standing there again. Then you go to find someone to bring you to the hotel. But where are they? And then you don’t know whether it’s this parking lot or that parking lot, and you’re dragging your bags like four miles through the airport. Then you find the person. Again, he’s not wearing a mask — because you’re in Tennessee — and he’s eating a Snickers bar and then you drive two hours.
“Then you get to the hotel. You take your bag, put it on the floor and blah, blah, blah. Then you go try to find some food. Then you try to sleep. You wake up the next morning. Somebody wants to do an interview, so I talk to them for a while, and then something else happens. Then you go to the place where you’re going to play and you see, ‘oh shit, they don’t have the amp that I asked for; well, I’ll just deal with this amp.’ Then that amp doesn’t work. So they go get another one. And then you’re kind of hungry, and then you’ve got heartburn and you left your Tums back at the hotel.
“Anyway, eventually you get to play for 45 minutes or an hour and a half, and it’s the most amazing, wonderful thing. It wipes out whatever else happened. It’s incredible. You get to play! And then you go back to the hotel, then you try to sleep. Gerald [Clayton] had to leave the hotel at 4 a.m. this morning to go to Canada. The stuff we do to get to play for that hour. It’s outrageous.”
I’d originally organized this article as a three-way conversation with Frisell and Irish journalist Philip Watson, who spent much of his 50s writing Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer (Faber), published this spring, which is the most thorough, exhaustively researched biography that I have ever read about a living jazz musician. But a bout with COVID forced Watson to withdraw, necessitating separate conversations.
In the course of his 120,000-word narrative, Watson draws on eight long interviews with Frisell between 2015 and 2017; further conversations with Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, his younger brother, Bob, and his early music teacher, Dale Bruning; and testimonies from dozens of musicians and music-biz luminaries who’ve intersected with Frisell over the past half-century. At various points, he interpolates into the narrative listening sessions with various eminences who’ve brought Frisell onto their projects (Paul Simon, Hal Willner, Gus Van Sant, Justin Vernon, Sam Amidon and Irish vernacular musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill) or have taken inspiration from his sui generis instrumental and compositional voices (Rhiannon Giddens, Van Dyke Parks, the original Bad Plus and British avant-garde composer Gavin Bryars). Watson seems to have read and absorbed every profile and review ever published about Frisell, and to have listened to and critically cogitated on his entire leader and sideman corpus.
Remarkably, as Watson remarked when he felt well enough to speak, Beautiful Dreamer is his first book. The project gestated during the 1980s, when Watson heard Frisell as a sideman with the Paul Motian Trio, Power Tools, Paul Bley and John Zorn’s Naked City, and also on his first tour with his own band. The 1993 album Have A Little Faith (“like a music equivalent of a great American novel in its expanse”) cemented Watson’s fascination with this “extraordinarily interesting musician with a deep and diverse relationship with music, and American music in particular.”
Gainfully employed by British GQ and Esquire as an editor and writer after a solid stint doing music journalism for The Wire, the excellent jazz and beyond magazine, Watson began to ponder the notion of telling a long-form story. “The least commercial and possibly the least practical idea,” he says, revolved around “this interesting, living and real central character named Bill Frisell who I wanted to know more about. I wanted to explore why he’d done the things he’d done, and most importantly, what might it all mean. What themes were emerging? Could I draw any conclusions about the creative life he’d led?”
Of course, it takes two to tango, and Frisell — who has endured thousands of interviews over the years — has a keenly developed bullshit detector. Watson had to earn his trust. He wrote some sample chapters to “give some idea of my approach and style and things I wanted to develop,” submitted them to Frisell’s management, and then spoke to Frisell when he came to Ireland in 2014 as an artist-in-residence at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. “I told Bill that I wanted to be stretched as a writer in the same way I thought he’d constantly challenged himself as a musician,” Watson says. “I told him that I required an enormous amount of access, and that the book would be entirely independent of him creatively, editorially and financially.”
Once Frisell agreed, Watson wrote a “strong synopsis” of about 50,000 words, which he submitted to various literary agents and publishers, who summarily rejected it. Then he found a jazz-friendly editor, Alexa Von Hirschberg, who’d been hired by Faber “to expand its music imprint, which had gone a bit too English, too ’80s rock style of music, too narrow.” He continues: “Alexa loved the format, the tripartite structure of the listening sessions, most of which I’d done; the chronological narrative; and thematic threads, like the way Bill has used music in relation to the visual arts, or Bill Frisell the composer, or Bill’s Paul Motian years. I’d go into an editorial board meeting and everyone said, ‘I’ve got no idea who he is; we can’t see how you ever can make enough money, especially if you need a reasonable advance.’ She goes into the editorial meeting and people say, ‘Bill Frisell? We love Bill Frisell.’”
My one caveat with this compelling work is that, in the course of establishing Frisell’s considerable impact on progressive roots, alt-rock, hipster pop and crossover art music since he appeared on Hal Willner’s early-’80s Nino Rota and Kurt Weill extravaganzas, Watson downplays the foundational jazz background that bedrocks Frisell’s ingenious cross-genre navigations. Not that testimonies, anecdotes, encomia and analytical observations by many members of Frisell’s various bands and partners in his creative projects are lacking in the text. I find it problematic, though, that Watson conducted almost all the listening tests with high-profile practitioners from the worlds that Frisell visits, and not the world he lives in. It’s likely that their presence nudged the gatekeepers to green light publication. But to this jazz-centric reader, the implication is that the imprimatur of Paul Simon or Justin Vernon — or Elvis Costello or Marianne Faithfull or Lucinda Williams, all quoted within the text — becomes the determinative arbiter of Frisell’s value, and not his ability to refract both the most complex and simplest of raw materials with poetic logic into his own harmonic, rhythmic and timbral argot.
I ask Frisell his thoughts about the felicitous impact of jazz on his musical production. “That totally makes sense to me,” he says. “There’s a whole thing about whether you call it ‘jazz’ or something else that makes it hard to talk about — but let’s use the word for now. When I discovered jazz, it was like, OK, this is where anything is possible. There’s no limits on it. It’s where music is completely dependent on how far you can take it with your imagination. Jazz gives you the tools to be able to deal with anything. But it’s also so humbling. You realize how big music is and how it’s basically just impossible. But you just keep trying anyway.
“Some people don’t hear that I’m coming from that world. They think, ‘Oh, he’s playing country music’ or whatever they think I’m playing. But some of those roots I’ve worked on are down there, somewhere.”
For Watson, Frisell’s openness to “bringing all these other musics and ideas and influences and audiences potentially into my world” was inspirational. “Perhaps it’s my musical journey, as well,” he says. Watson refers to his years as the “in-house ‘Invisible Jukebox’ specialist” for The Wire. “There was a period where every day, every minute I was awake, I was listening to jazz music and completely loving it, realizing that I didn’t know enough about the music before 1945 or whatever. But I was also deeply interested in many other types of music. That’s maybe why I went from doing music journalism to general feature writing or general magazine writing. So, in some ways, my interest in music and the kinds of things that I write about perhaps echo or resonate in Bill’s very open approach to how he approaches his music and his art.”
As examples, Watson mentions Frisell’s score for the silent films of Buster Keaton or The Great Flood, a documentary on the Mississippi River flood of 1927. “That must have seemed like a slam dunk, to use an American expression. Why would someone not ask someone like Bill Frisell to do that? But it’s a much greater stretch for David Breskin to ask him to respond to the paintings of Gerhard Richter. I think that when Bill finds some kind of stimulation or curiosity — or it takes him to other places as he sometimes says — he’s a solid and self-confident artist who says, ‘I’m going to put myself in that situation.’ Mostly, through Bill’s incredible skill and ears and openness and intelligence, he makes those kinds of projects work, and they’re not in any way token. I deeply admire that about him, to be honest, and it maybe mimics the way I’ve tried to approach the work that I’ve done.”
[caption id="attachment_47361" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Photo by Carole d'Inverno.[/caption]
“Philip’s portrayal rang true,” Frisell says. “I appreciated that — although he obviously loves what I do — it wasn’t over the top. There was critique. He called me out on things that he thought were not successful, which I think gives more weight in the truth than some guy just slobbering all over me.
“Part of the point is that I’d take a risk and fail; I’d go down one path and maybe it wasn’t as fruitful — I didn’t make it. But then I’d try to get up and go in another direction, or try it again. Part of the deal is you have to just keep going. I think you get a sense of that long haul. It always blows my mind when someone who’s been playing music a couple of years gets on America’s Got Talent or one of those shows, and they’re like, ‘Tonight, if I make it, this is going to be it — oh, God, I hope I can do it!’ They think this one event is going to make or break their thing in music. Music doesn’t work that way. It’s a lifelong thing. You never finish it. Somewhere way back there, I made up my mind that I wanted to play and I’ve stuck with it somehow. There’s definitely ups and downs. I think that comes through in the book.”
Watson’s empathetic perspicacity is a primary reason why this is so. Another is because Frisell, once persuaded that the proposal was legitimate, provided him generous access and spoke to him with such transparency. “When Philip asked me, I didn’t think there would be much of a story,” Frisell says. “All I’ve done is practice my guitar, basically. But I’m not trying to hide anything. If someone wants to ask me a question, I’ll answer the question. I guess I didn’t realize how deep in it he was going to go. He came to Seattle and stayed at my house. We were in Denver together. We traveled. That made me appreciate it that much more, but it also got that much more frightening, like: What’s going to happen with this? I really did open myself up to this guy. I didn’t write it. I didn’t make any of the decisions. I just let him into my life and trusted him. He’s the real deal.”
Having surpassed the one-hour time limit allotted for our interview, we wind down the conversation. “When I read the whole book, it was the most bizarre sensation to have 70 years compressed into however long it took me to read through the whole thing,” Frisell says. “I certainly appreciate all the love being thrown at me. But I have to be careful not to let that stuff go to my head.” He points to his left. “That’s my guitar right there. And it’s still like: Oh my God, what am I going to do with this thing? That always brings me right back down to what I need to do. I’m thankful that people get something out of what I’m doing. But whether they think it’s good or bad, I’m the only one that really knows if I made it or not. It’s always a struggle to try to keep that up.” - Ted Panken
Featured photo by Monica Jane Frisell.