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Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

By Published: April 26, 2011
"It started out being a solo record," says Frisell, "and then Arild was on there; and, maybe that was the beginning of me not seeing eye to eye with Manfred. There were things I started to do—I used a lot of overdubs—and Manfred wasn't able to follow through with the ideas. I didn't have enough confidence or strength to let me finish what I was doing, so there were a number of pieces where he didn't like the direction they were going. Manfred wanted spontaneous solo performance, like what Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
does. I wasn't really mature enough—or didn't have the strength—to do that, and I wanted to do something else with some pieces prepared that had overdubs. So some of those got on there, like the tune 'In Line' [which would become the title track to Frisell's 1983 debut as a leader].

"Basically, Manfred would lose patience pretty quickly when I did those pieces," Frisell continues. "He wanted spontaneous performance. I gave up on a lot of my original ideas, and then I only had a couple days to do the recording, and this is pretty devastating to me. I'm only in there a couple days, and I remember we ate lunch and he said, 'You're not ready for this yet.' And I was really disappointed; I felt as if I'd failed, that I wasn't strong enough for it in the first place, and he was seeing it going one way and I wasn't strong enough to push through with my original ideas. Basically, he knew I'd been playing with Arild, and he thought, 'Maybe if you had Arild come in, that would balance it out.' So, a few months later, I came back to do a few songs with Arild, and that balanced out the whole thing. There was a bit of solo stuff and a bit of that, but it was a really difficult record for me—that thing about a mental state: if you start getting into doubting yourself and you're all alone, you're in deep trouble. I remember being in there and being panicked and terrified, and Manfred wasn't liking what I was doing; it was a horrible feeling."

Still, it was clearly good enough for Eicher to release, and, as a first effort from this emerging guitarist, there were no obvious signs of the trials and tribulations that took place during its recording. For Frisell, it was a milestone, to be sure, and one that was certainly received well enough by critics and a growing legion of fans. But, ultimately, it was just one more important event during a very hectic time of emergence. "I finally finished it, and I was playing gigs with Jan and Paul," Frisell recalls. "We had done Psalm, and were getting towards my first little conflict with Manfred. I don't remember when, but I was really committed to play with Paul's band. I felt like, for whatever all else, that was really where I was really expressing the full range of what I wanted to do. I felt connected to it. It was really important to me, even though it was a struggle in the beginning—he didn't get paid a lot of money—but, at the same time, I was playing with Jan Garbarek. It was a time when Jan was doing pretty good; he was doing higher-profile gigs.

"I was having a great time with him, but there was this weird conflict," Frisell continues." I had a tour with Paul, and then, without asking me or anything, ECM scheduled a tour for Jan at the same time and then announced it. But no one asked me if I was free: 'Oh, Jan has a tour at such and such a time,' and I said, 'But I have a tour with Paul then,' and they said, 'Well we've already set this up, and Jan's gigs are much bigger than Paul's.' And it was, like, 'Wait a minute.' And then it was a real bad scene for me; that's when I left Jan's band and had to make the choice, and there was also a lot of pressure from Manfred. Everyone wanted me to play with Jan. I should have played with Jan [from a business perspective], but personally I couldn't leave Paul. There was a little period where I was on the shit list, where nothing happened. After all that first batch of records, with Jan and Arild, Paul, Eberhard, and mine—it was a lot of stuff, and then I had this little conflict. So nothing happened for a while. Then Paul started recording solo for Soul Note, and Manfred's right-hand man [Thomas Stöwsand] left ECM at that time. He left the company and started his own booking agency—which, all the work I do in Europe, I still do with him [though Stöwsand has, sadly, passed on since this interview, in 2006].

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