The Sound of Silence

A biography of Bill Frisell finds the sweet spot

Towards the middle of this superb biography, Philip Watson meets Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver. The pair listen, rapt, to a pivotal Bill Frisell album and then Vernon – clearly thrilled to be talking about one of his musical heroes, reveals he has tattoos of Frisell song titles. He compares the trailblazing guitarist to Duke Ellington, explaining to Watson that such an equivalence “puts Frisell in the right class and category. I think he’s that important.” Bill’s influence and impact on music is maybe just as deep, he suggests, for while he may not be a household name, “almost every musician who’s serious knows who he is.”

A number of critical interludes or counterpoints occur throughout the book, during which fellow musicians and producers listen to Frisell’s music and respond to questions from Watson about what they’re hearing. During one such playback session Paul Simon describes how he’s long been a fan of Frisell’s work, for many reasons, “…but mostly it’s his sense of tone, the way he mixes colour, and the different forms of music that he combines; it’s a unique kind of Americana that’s really Bill Frisell.” His sense of sound is exquisite, he enthuses.“He’s a good creator of sounds and a good editor of them. That’s what I like about him as a player.”

The word editing is key here because one Frisell’s great gifts is to leave space; he plays less than other people. Time and again, friends and peers eulogise his playing as instantly recognisable for the notes he doesn’t play as much as for the ones he does. For, while it’s noted with awe that Bill can pretty much do anything on the guitar, from exquisitely lyrical jazz to Hendrix-like pyrotechnics, from bluegrass picking to dissonant experimental noise-blarping, Claude Debussy’s belief that “Music is the silence between the notes” runs through his whole approach. Jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas shares a story that exemplifies Frisell’s disarmingly spare technique.

Several years ago, Douglas was driving home from a Frisell gig with his then nineteen-year-old stepson, a guitarist mostly “into virtuosic instrumental metal players such as Yngwie Malmsteen.” “I’ve been taking him to see 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.’”This anecdote was borne out recently when I saw Frisell play at Cadogan Hall in London. A man alone onstage in a soft green suit, pedals gathered around his feet. An electric set, an acoustic set, a mixed encore. The music swirls around him, spills out into the hall. He’s sitting, intent, alert. Sometimes he smiles to himself, as if amused by what he’s found, repeats a handful of notes, reels off a flourish resembling laughter.

He seems to embody the idea that one learns technique in order to forget it and play. Indeed, one of the key leitmotifs in Philip Watson’s marvellous book is Frisell’s need to keep questing, questioning and rediscovering the music anew, unbound by genre – a player not trying to avoid failure but, rather, achieve success. Variants on the phrase “Bill tested himself” occur at regular intervals. See also – “Bill makes everyone else sound great” and “I was astonished and awed.” People talk about putting one of his albums on repeat, listening to records over and over, becoming entranced, intrigued, obsessed.

He sounds like nobody else, they tell Watson. He’s a sponge. He’s a scholar. He assimilates and then transcends his influences. He’s the Thelonious Monk of the guitar. Every page of Beautiful Dreamer has a gem of a tribute that most people would happily have as their epitaph.

Hearing him play in London I too was astonished by his dexterity and melodic capacity. The whole hall was enthralled, leaning in with eyes and ears, the sounds and music he made! The man was a guitarchestra. I thought of Neil Young’s assertion that, really, it’s all the same song.

There we all were at the leading edge of a lifetime spent trying to connect in the moment, connect absolutely, and never the same way twice. Might Bill Frisell’s questing holistic music be likened to the network of mycelia that span the globe – everything connected, vital and unseen, integral but mysterious? You might smile at that, but when he started to riff on John Barry’s Bond theme for You Only Live Twice – the octave lines of the opening refrain of French horns and violins reimagined as a chiming cascade – I thought of Björk, a fellow chameleon, biophiliac and Nonesuch record label artist. How many of us in the hall took a second to place that tune? Mouthed “Nancy Sinatra?” to ourselves. Unearthing the familiar in the instantly recognizable, glorious disorientation, delightful dissonance, celebrating the exotic and far away close at hand, these are among Bill Frisell’s great talents.

Quite early on, the reader realises the question at the heart of this book is not whether Bill Frisell is great – he’s clearly a visionary and a lovely man, both personally and professionally – but whether this can be unpacked in a book, even a beautiful, all-embracing brick like Philip Watson’s. 

Everyone seems to have a story about his kindness and virtuosity. There’s a terrifically sad moment when the bassist Kermit Driscoll describes the joy of being part of band with Bill for several years – the touring, the nightly hive-mind exploration of every possible music, the symbiosis and telepathy he felt with Bill, the lack of set lists, the fact the experience saved him from addiction… and the terrible depression when it ended and Bill moved on, as artists must. 

Many collaborators and peers speak of being touched and changed by interactions with Frisell – Marc Ribot, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, Gus Van Sant – he’s a generous player around others and a kind, sweet man offstage. Nobody has a bad word to say and, if that sounds like it might pall after a while, I can report it never does, because Bill’s so funny and self-effacing and his biographer so clear-eyed and Stanley Booth-like in his task, that the book races along like Sonny Rollins in full sail. Like subject, like writer: this is super-articulate, adventurous prose.

Towards the end, they talk about lockdown. How did Bill find it? Was he okay? A long pause (he does that…). “What I’ve found is how much the guitar has saved me. Again. It’s always saved me, and I’ll start playing and I’ll keep on playing for hours and hours and hours, every day. Sometimes it’ll just be one song, playing it over and over again, all day, finding different things in it.”In the end it all comes back to the guitar but, as Beautiful Dreamer makes plain, when a guitar is in Bill Frisell’s hands, well – the possibilities are endless.

“Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music” by Philip Watson
(Faber, £20)

Dan Richards writes about travel, culture and art. His first book, “Holloway” (Faber, 2013), co-authored with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, was a Sunday Times Bestseller. His latest, “Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth” (Canongate, 2019), explores landscapes that inspire adventurers, pilgrims, writers, and artists. His next book, “Overnight”, comes out in 2024

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