Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Frith, Fred

Multi-Instrumentalist Fred Frith combines jazz, classical and rock influences into a sonic concept which is at times abrasive, and at times beautiful. A longtime collaborator of saxophonist John Zorn, Frith's music challenges accepted notions of what can be achieved with improvisational music.

Fred Frith was born on February 17, 1949 in Heathfield, Sussex, England. Fred was born into a musical household with his father being a proficient pianist and avid music fan. Fred began studying music at the age of five when he began taking violin lessons. During this time, Fred sang in the church choir and began to teach himself the piano, building upon his aural skills.

By time he was thirteen years old, Frith began to switch his focus towards the guitar after seeing an instrumental rock group perform. Fred taught himself the fundamentals of the guitar from a book and set to form his own band.

Soon after, Frith formed his first band The Chaperones, which covered songs by The Beatles and The Ventures. By 1964, American blues became a popular genre to the youth of England with bands such as The Rolling Stones developing their own brand of the blues. Fred soon became thrilled by this music as well as the music of guitarist Django Reinhardt. Shortly after, The Chaperones began to play more blues-based material that better reflected his tastes.

Upon graduating from high school in 1967, Frith enrolled at Cambridge University where he began to play guitar at local folk clubs. Studying English literature, Fred took advantage of the artistic atmosphere of Cambridge and performed with blues bands, studied flamenco guitar and composed music for experimental theater.

Along with blues, rock, and folk music Frith was listening to at the time, Frith found a big influence in the music of avant-garde composer John Cage. Cage was experimenting with obscuring the line between noise and music, which appealed greatly to Fred. During this time, Fred became interested in Middle Eastern music, adding the style to his future work.

In 1968, Frith formed the band Henry Cow with saxophonist and fellow Cambridge student Tim Hodgkinson after meeting in a local blues club. The avant-garde rock band was initially founded to examine musical and political concepts. Both Frith and Hodgkinson had like-minded approaches to music and found their mutual thoughts original. Whereas guitar was his main instrument, he also played bass, piano, and violin while in Henry Cow.

Soon, Henry Cow and several other like-minded bands formed a collective entitled “Rock in Opposition” with Henry Cow at the heart of the group. The organization encompassed a group of bands in the late 1970s that were bonded in their resistance to the music business and their practices. Henry Cow remained together for ten years and recorded six albums. The group’s sound inspired a new generation of experimental rock music. In 1970, Fred earned his BA from Cambridge, later obtaining his MA in English Literature from Cambridge in 1974.

In 1973, Henry Cow released the album Leg End featuring the song “Nirvana For Mice,” which ended up being one of their most famous songs. On “Nirvana For Mice,” Frith constructs an arrangement that evokes the spirit that one might find in the work of composer Frank Zappa. Frith’s performance features angular lines interspersed between Hodgkinson’s even flowing movement of notes. The contrasting performances allow the maximum operation of harmony and color.

About the time that Henry Cow released its 1974 album Unrest, Frith recorded the first of several solo improvisational records. Entitled Guitar Solos, the album included eight songs that were recorded without accompaniment on what is known as a “prepared guitar,” which is a guitar that has objects between the fret board and strings that alter the sound of the guitar.

On “No Birds,” Frith crafts a soothing atmosphere using a combination of reverb, feedback and guitar pedals. Fred uses multi-layered guitar tracks to satisfy several harmonic ideas, resulting in a dramatic sonic landscape. His use of layering different guitar sounds almost gives the illusion of a full ensemble performing.

Upon its release, Guitar Solos received praise for its experimental use of the guitar. Frith recorded two more albums in the Guitar Solo series including Guitar Solos 2 in 1976, which featured guitarists Derek Bailey, G.F Fitzgerald, and Hans Reichel and 1979’s Guitar Solos 3. The success of the album brought Frith to the attention of composer Brian Eno with Frith contributing to 1977’s Before and After Science and 1978’s Music for Films.

In 1978, Henry Cow decided to disband and soon after, Frith formed a group entitled Art Bears with vocalist Dagmar Krause and Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. The group’s music mirrored a politically infused world-view that was seen as pessimistic. The group went on to release 1978’s Hopes and Fears, 1979’s Winter Songs and 1981’s The World As It Is Today before deciding to disband due to disagreements over where their music was headed.

In 1979, Frith recorded Gravity, which many saw as his strongest work. Unlike the experimental music he had become known for, Gravity displayed a different side of Frith by including different styles of music from around the world. The same year, Fred moved to New York City.

The following year, Fred formed the band Massacre with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher. The group’s music was often strident and powerful, which made exemplars of that era's "downtown" art music scene. The group released one album, Killing Tim,e before disbanding

Frith followed Gravity with Speechless in 1981 and Cheap at Half the Price in 1983. In 1982, Frith formed the group Skeleton Crew with cellist Tom Cora. The group was known for their completely live improvisations and extensive touring. In 1984, the group released Learn to Talk and The Country of Blinds in 1986.

In 1988, Frith joined alto saxophonist John Zorn in forming the band Naked City, which incorporated elements of jazz, heavy metal and punk rock. Performing on the bass guitar, Frith and Zorn were joined by drummer Joey Baron, guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Wayne Horvitz. The following year, the band released a self-titled album.

On “The James Bond Theme,” Frith readily blends aggression and swing into a freewheeling blend that lends itself perfectly to this conceptual version of the famous theme song. Frith’s combination of different textures calls to mind some of the soloing qualities of saxophonist Eric Dolphy. The unpredictability of Frith’s performance adds more power and strength to the overall song. Throughout this rambunctious arrangement, Frith weaves in and out of the instrumentation ensuring a link between the rhythm and harmony.

1988 also saw the release of The Technology of Tears, which featured Zorn and trombonist Jim Staley. He also expanded his composition experience by continuing to compose music for film as well as dance and theater troupes. In 1989, Frith formed the group Keep The Dog featuring guitarist Rene Lussier, pianist Zeena Parkins, and percussionist Kevin Norton. The group toured extensively throughout Europe ultimately breaking up in 1991.

Fred was the subject of a documentary in 1990, entitled Step Across the Border, which chronicled his career. He also released a soundtrack to the movie of the same title. By 1995, Frith moved to Germany with his wife and children. During this time, Frith was associated with the L’Ecole Nationale de Musique, a music conservatory in Villeurbanne, France. From the years 1994-1996, Fred was their composer in residence.

Frith moved back to the United States in 1997 when he accepted a position in the music department of Mills College in Oakland, California. Two years later, he was made the “Luther B. Merchant Professor of Composition” where his responsibilities also include teaching contemporary performance and improvisation.

In 2002, Frith established “Fred Records,” his own record label with the purpose of re-releasing previous works in his catalog as well as unreleased recordings. In December 2006, Fred performed with Chris Cutler and Tim Hodgkinson at The Stone in New York City, the first time in almost thirty years that the trio has performed together.

In 2007, Frith was the recipient of the Career Award from the Music on Film-Film on Music Festival in Prague. The following year, Fred was awarded the Demetrio Stratos Prize for his contribution to experimental music. Frith lives in California with his wife, photographer Heike Liss and their children Finn and Lucia.

Select Discography

As Fred Frith

Guitar Solos (1974)

Guitar Solos 2 (1976)

Guitar Solos 3 (1979)

Gravity (1979)

Speechless (1981)

Cheap at Half the Price (1983)

Technology of Tears (1988)

Step Across the Border (1990)

Previous Evening (1997)

Clearing (2001)

Rivers and Tides: Working With Time (2003)

Allies (2005)

To Sail, To Sail (2008)

With Art Bears

Hopes and Fears (1978)

Winter Songs (1979)

The World As It Is Today (1981)

With Brian Eno

Before and After Science (1977)

Music for Films (1978)

With Henry Cow

Leg End (1973)

Unrest (1974)

With Naked City

Naked City (1989)

Absinthe (1993)

Radio (1993)

With Skeleton Crew

Learn To Talk (1984)

The Country of Blinds (1986)

Contributor: Eric Wendell