On Social Science
For Once, I Am a Trend-Setter

Bill Frisell: "Throughout"

Last Christmas someone gave me a biography of Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer, by Philip Watson. In case you don't know the name, Frisell is a guitarist, one of the best-known musicians on any instrument in the contemporary jazz world, though "jazz" is not the right word for much of his work: how about small-group mostly-instrumental partially-improvised song-based American music? And substitute "solo" for "small group" on some recordings, including the first album issued under his own name, In Line, on the famous (iconic!) ECM label. Well, that one isn't 100% solo--several tracks include the bass player Arild Andersen. But it's mostly Frisell's guitar, and I think all the compositions are his. And although he's best known, and was first known, as a guitarist, his compositions are a major contributor to the high regard in which he's held.

This is one of them. To my taste, and apparently to the taste of a good many others, including the author of the biography, In Line is not an entirely satisfactory album as a whole. But according to the book, this one track, "Throughout," seems to have a way of getting under people's skin. It definitely got under mine. 

It also got under the skin of Petra Haden. Jazz fans (if there are any who read this blog) will notice her last name, even if they haven't heard of her. Yes, she is the daughter of Charlie Haden, the legendary (iconic!) bass player, whose long career began in the late '50s. Petra is one of a set of triplets, all of whom are musicians. She is quoted in the book:

'When I first heard it, I said, "This is my favourite song, in the world,"' she says, smiling. 'There was a point where I would listen to "Throughout" for  hours--how he layered the sound, like I enjoy doing when I record my vocals. The music reminded me of that feeling of being in a dreamland.'

Several of her musical projects have involved multi-tracked a cappella vocals. Presumably she was pleased to work with Frisell on an album cleverly titled Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. This vocal and guitar arrangement of "Throughout" appears on it.

I have not heard the whole album yet. And although I want to hear it, I have to say that I am even more eager to hear another Petra Haden album: a cover of the entire Who Sell Out album rendered in her multi-tracked vocals. Goodness. 

I will never be able to hear all of Bill Frisell's recorded work. Look at his discography. And it's not a case, as it too often is with jazz and pop musicians who manage not to die young, of brilliant youthful work followed by years of mediocre repetition. When Watson proposed the book to Frisell, the latter's first reaction was "What would you write about?" Apart from decades of making brilliant music, Frisell's life is not very dramatic. He had a stable and happy childhood and youth, met with considerable encouragement and opportunity, including teachers like the guitarist Jim Hall who gave him not only instruction but connections, has never had the drug and/or drinking problems so common among popular musicians, and has been married to the same woman since 1979. Maybe the dissolute artist route is not necessarily a good way to go, if one has a choice. 


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Interesting that "Throughout" immediately called to mind the work of Pat Metheny, then I saw on wikipedia the connection between Frisell's tenure at ECM and Metheny's recommendation of him to someone at that label (which was also Metheny's label at that time).

Metheny pops up from time to time in the biography. Not surprising since he and Frisell are contemporaries and there are obvious broad similarities in their careers. And there are some interesting glimpses of Manfred Eicher (ECM founder/boss) in the book. In particular, at the making of the album on which "Throughout" appears: Frisell did not enjoy it. He didn't feel ready to make a solo album, wasn't sure what he wanted to or should do, and Eicher was somewhat critical during the sessions, making Frisell feel more uncertain. But whatever the merit of the album as a whole, this one composition certainly lasted. Looking for it on YouTube I saw a number of performances by other artists. And some fairly recent live performances by Frisell.

Seems like both Metheny and Frisell eventually became a little restless within the ECM aesthetic.

Starting with his album "Nashville" I have most of the next 12 or so; I guess that was my Frisell period of buying and listening to his music a lot. Of course I had to give up because it never ends. Yes, he is about as high quality as you can get for his genre, whatever exactly that genre is!

12?!? Wow. I haven't heard Nashville but I'm sure it's good. I think the first one I heard is Where In the World? which precedes Nashville and is very odd. I picked up a used copy well over 20 years ago. I must have recognized his name. I can't think why else I would have bought it. Very odd and very good, I should say. It was already pretty far from jazz as we usually think of it.

I went and counted. I have eight. But I'm pretty sure somewhere along the way several got "weeded out" during moves. Suffice to say that Frisell is a virtuoso who makes very interesting music that is also nice to listen to.
I bought Nashville back when it came out because of the cover of Neil Young's "One of These Days" which has a vocal performance by Robin Holcomb, who I have otherwise never heard of. Anyway, I got hooked on Frisell's guitar work.

"Throughout" is so appealing because there's the pretty tune bracketing several minutes of fairly far-out guitar. There's less of that on his later albums, which the book notes some people have complained about.

Regarding some other piece, the author (or somebody) observes that there is no attack in his playing. That's an unusual thing about this piece as well--for the most part it doesn't sound like strings are being plucked at all, just touched. I wonder if he uses a pick. I realize a lot of that effect is in the...effects, but still, it's unusual.

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