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Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

By Published: April 26, 2011
And that seemed to be it, as far as recording for ECM went: one record, and a feeling that he'd not made any kind of impression. "I was struggling along; nothing was happening," says Frisell. "I was playing weddings, and jam sessions with guys I knew from Boston. Every once in a while, through Mike Gibbs, there was a gig. There I met other ECM people—Bob Moses
Bob Moses
Bob Moses
b.1948
drums
the drummer and [bassist] Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow
b.1940
bass
. So I start to do a few things—like, Bob would call for gigs, and then I met [saxophonists] Julius Hemphill
Julius Hemphill
Julius Hemphill
1938 - 1995
sax, alto
and Jim Pepper
Jim Pepper
Jim Pepper
1941 - 1992
sax, tenor
, and other people I later played with more; but there were a couple years where things were discouraging. But at the same time, I was getting a little stronger with my own voice, so somewhere in there, a lot of things happened at once. I made this solo tape—just a little cassette that was myself, overdubbed—and, without thinking anything would come of it, I sent it to Eberhard and Manfred, and so that went off into the mail.

"But then I got a call, one of the most important calls I ever got, at the lowest point of my career," Frisell continues. "[Drummer] Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
called, another ECM person. I was rehearsing with Paul, and I sent this tape off, and that tape kinda got Eberhard more fired up about me; it kinda rekindled his interest in me. And he called me to do some duet gigs in Europe—again, totally improvised stuff—and I went over there. And this was when I was also playing with Paul: we played six or seven gigs—the quintet with [saxophonists] Billy Drewes and Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
b.1952
saxophone
, and [bassist] Ed Schuller—and did the album Psalm (ECM, 1982). That was, for me, the beginning of how Manfred and I connected.

"For me, Paul is one of the most important relationships I've ever had," Frisell continues. "He's not like my father, but almost. He's the guy, for me, where I get to do everything; he let me feel as if I was coming up with the stuff. It wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for him. We're still playing, and it feels like the first time we've played every time we play. I can't say enough about him.

"So I spent almost nine or ten months rehearsing with Paul before we ever did a gig; we did this in early in '81," says Frisell. "I did the duo concerts with Eberhard, and then I get a call from [bassist] Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
b.1945
bass, acoustic
, out of the blue, because Manfred, through Eberhard, was told to check me out again. Arild had this gig in Molde at the end of the summer, and Manfred said [to Andersen], 'You should check out this guy Bill Frisell.' So, out of the blue, Arild called me. So, I went there in August of '81, and when I get to Arild's, my mind was being slowly blown, because I was playing with Paul, and then Arild called, and I go do that!

"Then I get to Arild's house, and we rehearsed a little bit, and he liked it; it was good," Frisell concludes. "Then the phone rang, and it was Manfred, to whom I hadn't talked to in three years. Manfred talked to Arild, asked how it was going, and he said, 'It's going great.' So Manfred gets on the phone and asks for me to do a solo recording, and I thought, 'Jesus Christ, this is insane.' There were so many things happening suddenly. That was August, and a couple months later we did a long European tour with Paul, when we recorded Psalm at the end, and before that tour, Eberhard had talked to [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
about me. So it was December, 1981 that I recorded Psalm with Paul. Then I flew from Munich to Stuttgart to Oslo, and met Jan and recorded Paths, Prints (ECM, 1982). And, at that point, things were clicking with Manfred; he was excited about my playing. My confidence level was going up and I was playing strong then."

After the tentativeness of Fluid Rustle, the release of Psalm, Paths, Prints, Weber's Later That Evening and Andersen's Molde Concert (ECM), all within months of each other in 1982, was as strong a quadruple punch as any guitarist has made in the past three decades. All became classic albums for their leaders, and Frisell's idiosyncratic, texturally expansive playing was the common thread that united them all. By this time, it was clear that Frisell could take any context and make it his own, with a distinctive harmonic language capable of reinventing anything he touched into something unmistakable, unfailingly recognizable as his.

The logical next step was to record his debut as a leader, but things didn't go exactly as planned. "My confidence was going up, but I'd never played alone before—and still, to this day, playing by myself is very hard for me," Frisell reveals. "Music, for me, is about the chemical reaction that happens between people, the give and take. Most of the music I play has to do with the relationship between the people, and I don't know if I was ready for that [a solo recording].


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