Philip Watson is a long-time journalist whose work has spanned a huge range of areas, from poker to Chernobyl and Miles Davis to Afghanistan.
He wrote about jazz and new music early on in his career at The Wire, before going on to hold roles at GQ, where he was deputy editor, and Esquire, where he was editor-at-large.
In 2022, he published a critically acclaimed biography of the hugely influential American guitarist Bill Frisell entitled Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer.
The book has been described by composer Gavin Bryars as “a model of immaculate research”, and we took the opportunity to speak to Philip first about jazz journalism in general, and then more deeply on the subject of his biography.
Thanks to Philip for taking the time to give such in-depth answers on both subjects! Stay tuned until the end for more information about his work and how to connect with him.
How did your early career at The Wire shape your perspective on jazz and new music?
At a jazz conference I tuned in to a couple of years back, leading American critic and author Nate Chinen described his approach to music journalism as an attempt to stay “radically open”. Aiming to avoid any prejudices and preconceptions, he added, “I want to first let the light in through the window.”
It’s a philosophy I share and that has its roots in my time working for The Wire at the end of the 1980s. Jazz and its adjacent forms can be prone to a certain sectarianism. Under the editorship of the late and peerless writer and critic Richard Cook, however, and a team of exemplary contributors that included Graham Lock, Brian Morton, Val Wilmer, Mark Sinker, Howard Mandel, Cynthia Rose, Nick Coleman and John Fordham, the magazine resolutely grounded me in the art of being wide-ranging, open-minded and inclusive.
As I write in my biography of Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer, “Jazz has always been a generous and malleable music that reaches out beyond race, culture and nation, and beyond doctrine and dogma.”
How and why do you think interest in jazz from more mainstream magazines like GQ and Esquire has changed over the years?
American Esquire has a long and honourable history of covering jazz. In the 1940s the magazine featured high-profile annual jazz awards (winners included Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman) and poll-winner concerts (the 1944 event was the first jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York).
Esquire’s January 1959 “all-jazz issue” featured Art Kane’s famous A Great Day in Harlem photograph of 57 leading jazz musicians, and in 1962 the magazine published Esquire’s World of Jazz, a smart and stylish history of the “sound, sight and atmosphere” of the music, complete with essays, photographs, paintings and a discography of great recordings. Esquire also published such leading writers on jazz as Ralph Ellison, Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather.
It was partly because of this – and because of Esquire’s commitment in the 1960s and ’70s to the groundbreaking New Journalism of writers such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Terry Southern – that I was attracted to writing for and working on the British editions of Esquire and GQ. And I tried my best to continue their jazz tradition.
During my time at the magazines I profiled musicians ranging from Jan Garbarek to Sun Ra and Miles Davis, wrote features on the British jazz boom of the 1990s, worked on articles and shoots with legendary American jazz and fashion photographer William Claxton, and even helped organise a free cover-mounted Blue Note cassette.
Interest in jazz in mainstream magazines such as GQ and Esquire fluctuates with the popularity of the music and the predilections of its editors. But if I had been working on either of those magazines over the past ten years, I would not have missed out on the opportunity to write or commission pieces on, for example, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Matthew Halsall, GoGo Penguin, Jazz re:freshed, Trish Clowes, Steam Down, Tomorrow’s Warriors and the many other diverse and vibrant voices of the current UK jazz scene.
You’ve interviewed a wide range of jazz greats, both old and new. From a ‘career success’ point of view, can you identify any common traits?
Other than pure, unadulterated, prodigious talent, you mean? Or such oft-stated attributes as hard work, dogged determination and stubborn persistence? Self-belief helps as well, of course. I remember once hearing Irish artist Sean Scully say that a good deal of his success was down to being “undiscourageable”. Luck is also too often overlooked, but it plays its part, sometimes crucially – the right person providing the right opportunity, or saying the right thing, at the right time.
But in the end, of course, nobody really knows the secret of success. Somerset Maugham once famously declared that “there are only three things you need to be a writer – unfortunately no one knows what they are”.
I like, however, what Bill Frisell says about all this in Beautiful Dreamer. “What music has shown me is that it’s not about a goal, or anything,” he said, when I asked him what is the most important lesson that life has taught him. “You have to feel good about being in the process rather than… expecting some ultimate reward. Just to be in it, and enjoy being in it, and doing the best you can: that’s the whole idea.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer hoping to enter the world of jazz journalism today?
See above. Keep writing. Keep enjoying the writing. And keep going.
Do you remember the first time you heard Bill Frisell and what drew you to his music?
It would have been sometime in the mid-80s, around the time he began to record for ECM and released his debut album, the mostly solo and still remarkable In Line. I’m pretty sure the first time I saw Frisell live was at Peter Ind’s long-lamented Bass Clef club in London’s Hoxton – either as part of the exhilarating and newly formed Paul Motian trio with Joe Lovano, or in an unforgettable quartet led by Paul Bley, with John Surman and (again) Paul Motian. Not long after I saw him in an extraordinary one-off Power Tools trio with Melvyn Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson, and on the debut UK date of his first group, the Bill Frisell Band, with Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron.
There were so many things that drew me to his music, and have continued to do so ever since. Perhaps initially it was the sound of his guitar, a complex, all-encompassing universe of tones, colours and textures that was not quite like anything I’d heard before – but that, even at this early stage, seemed entirely distinctive and of itself.
There was also Bill Frisell’s very open and adventurous approach to music, the way, whatever the context, he seemed to augment and amplify his surroundings. His reach and ambition was stretching far beyond the borders of jazz into a musical world shaped and inspired by a multifarious range of forms, from Americana to avant-garde, folk to film music, ambient to alt-rock, country to classical.
By bringing and blending all these styles into his playing, Frisell seemed to be changing not just the sound of the guitar, but the sound of jazz itself. Those were exciting times and dynamics – a beautiful dream of music, if you like – and ideas that I wanted to explore further in my biography.
For someone who is not intimately familiar with Frisell’s music, what three albums would you recommend as a good way in?
An impossible task, of course, for a prolific musician – discogs.com lists 821 (and counting) credits – whose work is so multiple and varied. But, today at least, in chronological order, I’d go for…
Have a Little Faith (1993): Frisell’s musical equivalent of the Great American Novel, an absorbing adventure that spans 125 years and embraces such singular if disparate spirits as Bob Dylan, Aaron Copland, Muddy Waters, John Hiatt, Sonny Rollins and Madonna.
Good Dog, Happy Man (1999): A revelatory album that is 30 per cent jazz, 50 per cent Americana/roots/country and 70 per cent Bill Frisell – a deceptively simple and quietly timeless masterpiece that is bigger than maths, categories or genre.
East/West (2005): a thrilling double live album of Frisell exploring and expanding the art of the guitar trio, via a fascinating collection of originals, standards, traditional tunes and popular songs. Frisell at his most expressive, joyous, inventive and unpredictable.
Anyone wishing to explore Bill Frisell’s music further could check out the “Ultimate Bill Frisell Playlist” my publisher Faber asked me to compile around publication last year: 26 tracks from 26 different albums.
You had unprecedented access to Bill Frisell whilst writing his biography; what surprised you most about how he described his career and music?
It’s very easy to get the wrong impression of Bill Frisell. He is shy and introverted, complex and contradictory, and words do not come so easily to him. Anyone who has met him will have experienced the long pauses, the digressive anecdotes, the sentences that trail off and remain not quite complete. Music is his primary language, how he best expresses himself and communicates with the world, where “everything makes sense”.
If you give him the requisite amount of time, however, and slow down to his pace, listen more actively and respect the silences, Bill Frisell will show you that, among many other things, he is highly intelligent, blackly humorous and wonderfully generous of spirit, that he is a deep and original thinker. Best of all, for a biographer at least, he has an extremely good memory.
Which jazz musicians on the scene today would you consider closest to the Bill Frisell school of playing?
That’s a little hard to answer. Because any modern guitarist who uses such devices as loop, delay, compressor, pitch transposer, reverb or volume pedals, or who manipulates, warps or distorts their sound to any degree, owes a certain debt to Bill Frisell.
I’m thinking of Nordic players such as Jakob Bro, Eivind Aarset and Kalle Kalima; John Parricelli, Wolfgang Muthspiel and indie-folk guitarist William Tyler also come to mind. As do guitarists such as Julian Lage, Nels Cline, Charlie Hunter and Marc Ribot, musicians who naturally integrate into their sound a diverse range of styles and genres – jazz, Americana, rock, experimental, funk and blues, for example. There are no doubt countless others.
Mary Halvorson, for whom Bill Frisell’s music has also been important, expands his influence out further. In Beautiful Dreamer she told me, “I think he’s really paved a way, not just for guitarists but for all musicians – that idea, for example, of taking things from jazz, while not being married to jazz. Bill was an early model for that, for me and many others – for taking things from a million different places and synthesising them, for making music that doesn’t have to be just one thing.”
Frisell has worked with a huge range of musicians over his career. For you, what has been the most fruitful?
I dedicate a whole chapter in Beautiful Dreamer to Bill Frisell’s deep and crucial 30-year relationship with Paul Motian, especially in the forward-thinking trio with Joe Lovano. I write in the book…
“For Frisell, Paul Motian was like a cross between a tough uncle, hipster godfather and liberal patriarch, constantly encouraging him, always pushing him to believe in himself, unfailingly giving him the support and freedom to be his absolute best.
“Frisell recorded a total of twenty-eight albums with Motian, mostly in groups led by the drummer, but also in ensembles headed by musicians such as Paul Bley, Leni Stern and Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, as well as in bands formed by Frisell himself. Even if this was all he had achieved during the period he played with Motian, Frisell could be immensely proud of the remarkable range, originality, audacity and quality of the music.”
Three personal Motian/Frisell/Lovano favourites: It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, On Broadway Volume 2 (with Charlie Haden on bass) and Sound of Love.
For a musician who has incorporated many styles into his music over the years, is it possible to pinpoint any specific instances where his playing style shifted significantly, and why?
There is an anecdote in the book that details the time – in Boulder, Colorado in 1974 – when 23-year-old Bill Frisell saw gifted rock and jazz guitarist Mike Miller play live for the first time.
Up until that point Frisell had been, by his own admission, something of an extreme Jim Hall devotee, even imitator: he had had lessons with Hall in New York two years earlier; he played the same hollow-body Gibson ES-175 archtop as Hall; and he was an enormous admirer of Hall’s guitar sound and approach – all its light, economy and grace. In many ways Frisell wanted to be Jim Hall.
Mike Miller also played an ES-175, but as well as playing jazz standards, he was covering, as Frisell told me, “all kinds of tunes, from Stevie Wonder to Weather Report to some theme from a TV show – and playing them loud. I had never heard anybody play guitar like that and it just blew my mind, obliterated my whole idea that I had to only play soft. It really shook me up, shook me out of my whole deep Jim Hall obsession, and something snapped. I realised it wasn’t 1957, it was 1974. And I had to reassess everything.”
From that moment on, Frisell began to follow this own musical path, to play himself and not just Jim Hall, to let in all the sounds that had led him to that point – the Beatles, the Ventures, Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Wes Montgomery, Pete Seeger, Buddy Guy, the Kinks, Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan, Henry Mancini, Stephen Foster and Sonny Rollins, for example. “I tried opening myself up, and a light went on,” he says. “And I’ve tried to keep that attitude ever since.”
The book has been described as “a model of immaculate research” – what did the process look like once you’d decided to write it?
Soon after I’d committed to writing the book, I realised that to fully do justice to the enormity, complexity and importance of Bill Frisell’s work and achievements over a near 50-year period, to understand the man and artist within his exceptional life and sometimes tumultuous times, and to try to ultimately work out what it all might mean, I had to embark upon extremely detailed and comprehensive research.
That meant some of the following:
- Interviewing Frisell over many days, mostly in Seattle, where he was living at the time, but also in Denver, New York, Austin, London and Antwerp (at one stage I was almost like his professional stalker!).
- Interviewing family members, friends, musicians and collaborators (perhaps around 100), often over many hours and on several occasions.
- Tracking down – mostly though libraries (in particular the British Library and Westminster Music Library in London and the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt in Germany), online sources and contacts – as many articles on Frisell and his associates as I could.
- Filling in some of the gaps in my personal Frisell discography (especially the countless albums to which he has contributed) and relistening to the many sessions on which he is leader, or significant collaborator (with Paul Motian, John Zorn and Hal Willner, for example).
- Watching and cataloguing the many video clips and concert films (mostly available via YouTube) on which he appears.
- Working out a system in which all this information could be collated, cross-referenced, organised and made easily accessible.
“Fans ranging from Bon Iver to Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams to Marianne Faithful, everybody loves Bill Frisell” – what is it about his approach to music that has garnered such an array of fans?
Yes, in the book I write that Bill Frisell is “the favourite guitarist of many people who agree on little else in music”.
Some of the reasons for that I have detailed, above. It’s something to do with his widescreen vision of music, his versatility and pluralism. As the British poet Michael Horovitz once said, Frisell is the “maestro of all guitar possibilities”.
But you’ll have to read Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer to really discover the answer to that question.
Big thanks to Philip for taking the time to answer these questions and share his insight.
For more information on the book (with reviews/quotes from, among others, John Zorn and Gavin Bryars), visit the Faber website.
For information on the audiobook, read by visionary modern folk musician Sam Amidon, see: tantor.com
You can also find a review of the book by the very fine English pianist and composer Liam Noble here.
For more information on Philip Watson, go to: philipwatson.info.