Bill Frisell: “The Searcher” (Excerpt)

For four and a half decades, guitarist Bill Frisell has folded his beautifully faded melodies into a tapestry that includes work high profile pop singers, raging jazz punk, folk, ballads, country and western. In Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed The Sound of American Music, released this week by Faber books, author Philip Watson presents a sprawling biography of Frisell, which also includes “listening sessions” with artists like Paul Simon, Gavin Bryars, Hal Willner, Van Dyke Parks, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Rhiannon Giddens, and others. Aquarium Drunkard is proud to present an excerpt from the book’s first chapter, “The Searcher.”

Bill Frisell has a dream. It’s a real dream, one that he had thirty years ago now but that has stayed with him. A dream that occasionally comes back to him during waking hours, yet only partially, mutably, like a sequence of fading and distorting Polaroids.

In  it,  Frisell  enters  a  large  mansion  and  climbs  a  series  of  winding  stairs  that  take  him  higher  and  higher.  The  building  is  rambling, ornate,  American  Gothic;  it  is  dark  and  shadowy,  and  feels  strangely claustrophobic.

At the top of the house, at the end of a long wood-paneled corridor, he  scales  a  ladder  that  leads  him  up,  through  a  gap  in  the  ceiling,  to  a dimly lit attic lined with mahogany shelves, tall bookcases and curious artifacts – it’s a cocoon-like space, a private library, perhaps.

Seated around a heavy central table are three “nice little people” dressed in dark brown hooded robes. The “miniature monks” tell Frisell they are going to show him “stuff, the real stuff, how things really are”. They are going  to  share  special  truths,  secret  quiddities  that  very  few  come  to  know.  One  of  them  takes  from  a  shelf  a  small  wooden  box  containing cubes of different colors. He invites Frisell to open it. “This is the true essence of color, what color really looks like,” he tells him.

Frisell looks at a red so bright and intense that it hurts his eyes: “It was a red like I’d never seen, like it was psychedelic or something, or lit from within.” He has the same experience with blue and green: “It was like I’d been blind and was seeing color for the first time.”

Another  “monk”  then  turns  to  Frisell  and  says,  “We  know  you’re  a  musician, so we’d like you to hear what real music sounds like.” The  sound  that  streams  into  the  room  is  so  pure  and  physical  that it  feels  like  a  rod  passing  through  his  head.  “It  was  like  an  arrow  shot between  my  eyes  or  a  rocket  ship  traveling  through  my  brain,”  he explains. It’s every piece of music he has imagined or heard, coexisting and playing simultaneously. Yet what could be cacophony coalesces into the  most  harmonious,  beautiful  and  perfect  music.  Then  suddenly,  of  course, Bill Frisell wakes up.

“It  was  the  most  amazing  thing  I’ve  ever  heard,  though  it  would  be impossible  to  describe,”  he  tells  me.  He  cannot  recall  what  the  melody was, be sure there even was one, or what type of music was being played: “It  was  like  one  of  those  super-elaborate  Chinese  carved  ivory  [puzzle]  balls – you don’t know how they do it, but the further and further you look  inside,  the  more  and  more  layers  you  discover.  I  sort  of  remember  the  sound  of  strings  –  like  a  thousand  violins  playing  independent parts.  But  it  wasn’t  really  a  particular  instrument,  or  instruments.  And it wasn’t a drone, because you could hear every little bit. It just included everything. It was all one thing. It was one sound.”

His memory of the dream may be elusive, yet its meaning and significance to Bill Frisell seem more clear. On one level, the dream represents the ideal (and myth) of artistic perfection, the apogee of creative struggle and endeavor, the liminal, mysterious forces at work in music and the arts. On another, it symbolizes Bill Frisell’s search.

“I could never, in any way, achieve anything remotely close to what I heard in the dream,’ he says. ‘But I got a glimpse of something to strive for, something real and concrete, something that I feel I actually heard. Something I know is there. I’m always reaching out for things that are just a little bit beyond my grasp, different things that sort of float by a little outside my focus. Sometimes I reach out, and they disappear. But that’s what keeps me going, every day, every time I play.”

Frisell says he has experienced the sound, fleetingly, when playing in concert. “There have been a few moments, just for a split second, when things have really lifted off, when I’ve just totally lost who’s playing what, and I’ve had a tiny flash or reflection of that sound. I’ve barely seen it; it’s like I’m on a high-speed train. But it’s pretty awesome to even think that it might be there, to be reminded that maybe there’s a way to get to all this stuff. Maybe that’s what the beam or rod [of sound] means. It’s about paying more attention, right? About staying clear, and making sure you somehow stay on target. It’s about there being no reason why music can’t be all together in one place.”

It may seem fanciful, romantic even, to allude to the power of such a dreamworld in the music of Bill Frisell. Yet he is not the first musician to have experienced such a striking epiphany. The inimitable jazz original Rahsaan Roland Kirk said that the extraordinary innovation of playing more than one horn at the same time came directly from a dream. “The idea  came  from  a  whole  lot  of  different  dreams  that  I  was  having,”  he  once said. “I’d be so frustrated after I’d practiced, day in and day out. And I’d lay down and have these dreams; I’d hear different instruments simultaneously . . . one of the dreams . . . showed me playing two instruments simultaneously. So after that I set out to find the instruments that I heard in my dreams, by looking in antique shops and different types of music shops and things.”

From  Paul  McCartney  to  Keith  Richards,  Johnny  Cash  to  Jimi Hendrix, Wagner to Ravel, Stravinsky and Berlioz, countless musicians and  composers  have  said  songs  and  compositions  have  come  partially or  fully  formed  to  them  in  dreams.  Jazz  pianist  Dave  Brubeck  even claimed to have found religion through a reverie of music. After hearing in a dream an entire composition and orchestration of the prayer “Our Father” for a mass he had been commissioned to write, he was reportedly so moved by the revelation that he joined the Catholic Church.

The  influence  of  Frisell’s  dream  continues  to  resonate.  He  has  written compositions with oneiric titles such as “Like Dreamers Do,” “Dream On” and “Shutter, Dream.” Then there are the albums Beautiful Dreamers, which includes a gently oblique version of Stephen Foster’s 1864 parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer”, and Blues Dream, a suite of songs that stretches and  expands  across  many  American  musical  forms,  and  is  widely  considered  to  be  one  of  his  finest  works.  Beautiful  Dreamers  also  became the name of one of Frisell’s most consistently creative groups, a trio with Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston on drums.

Those who’ve worked closely with Frisell recognise the dream, and the search, as being important and revealing.  “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that sounds exactly what Bill is like,” says drummer Kenny Wollesen, when I describe The Frisell Dream to him. “Because he has  these  ears  that  just  capture  everything.  I  mean,  it’s  amazing,  man;  crazy. It’s all going into his brain, and it makes me realize that there’s a lot more going on than what I’m hearing.”

Violist  Eyvind  Kang  sees  the  dream  as  a  kind  of  enlightenment.  “A  dream like that is not just another wild dream; it represents a polarity, a dialectic with the practical side of Bill’s world – all the extreme traveling and  the  brutal  stuff  to  do  with  the  making  of  the  gigs,” he  says.  “That dream, and other things, have hinted to me over the years that, from time to time, he’s kind of operating on a sublime and visionary level.”

Cartoonist  and  animator  Jim  Woodring,  who  has  illustrated  two  of Frisell’s album covers, also takes a knowingly mystical line on The Frisell Dream: “It’s about something transcendental he can’t remember, but that he knows is there. He’s been to the mountain; he’s heard it. Jesus, that’s a great story. It’s like a chapter from the Bible: ‘Bill’s Revelations.'”

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