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Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

By Published: April 26, 2011
"So, there was a little period of tension," Frisell concludes, "but out of the blue, Manfred called back and said, 'What are you doing?' like nothing happened, and, 'What do you want to do?' He suggested doing a record with Kenny Wheeler, and he suggested Al Foster to play drums. It was right around when Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport
Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport
1894 - 1952
started to play again, and I was really into Al Foster. I had this idea to have Jerome Harris
Jerome Harris
Jerome Harris
play bass and Bob "Saloon" Stewart
Bob "Saloon" Stewart
play tuba, and I was really getting fired up. It was a dream band, and that's what became Rambler (ECM, 1984)—except for Al. He was excited to do it, and we had mutual friends—guys that were playing with Miles, like Mike Stern
Mike Stern
Mike Stern
—so I was able to call him up and ask him to do it; but then, literally a week before the recording [he had to pull out]. I thought, 'What am I gonna do?' At this time, Paul [Motian] was really committed to not playing with anyone else; anytime people called him, he'd say, 'No, I'm committed to my own band.' So, I called Paul to confide in him, and he said, 'I'll play." I was ecstatic, because at that time he wasn't doing anything. No matter who called, he said he would not do it because of his own band and music. And he bailed me out. That's how that record came about, and, in a way, it was really my first. It was a burst of my own stuff."

How Rambler might have sounded with Foster, we'll never know; but with Motian, Frisell had a built-in chemistry, and Rambler was ultimately even better received than In Line (ECM, 1983), with three compositions that would feature time and again in performance (and on record) for years to come: "When We Go," "Resistor" and, especially, the lyrical "Strange Meeting." That Frisell's reputation was on a rapid ascendancy, by this time, didn't stop the guitarist from appreciating the opportunities ECM provided, and how that label was changing the face of jazz. "The first ECMs I heard were Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
's Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (1970) and Vol. 2 (1972)," Frisell recalls. "There was an area at that time, this blank area, where this kind of music was happening, and it wasn't being put out or represented anywhere. And for them [ECM] to go into a neglected area and present it in such a high-class way from the very beginning—their covers looked different, the vinyl looked thicker, and they were all consistently so good sound-wise ... that's not to say there wasn't good music around, but ECM went into this really uncharted area.

"ECM made the standard higher," Frisell continues. "Bob Hurwitz [now the head of Nonesuch] worked for ECM at the time, and has since done his own thing, but with ECM, there's a certain period where they really upped the standard, stayed consistent, and stayed with a real clear vision of what the music was to be. Anything that's good, it's gonna hold up. You go through different phases of fashion, but if you do it right and good and true, it's gonna do that. ECM did that."

It was at that time that Motian reduced his working quintet of Psalm to a trio that has, in the ensuing quarter century, reshaped the concept of interactive, spontaneous small ensembles by eliminating the bass—a rare and daring move for an ensemble led by a drummer. Sure, there were bass-less ensembles, but not ones where there was another instrument to which it was normally so tightly tied. But with Motian's approach to the kit, turning more textural than temporal, it was no surprise, then, that the equally texture-minded Frisell was such a strong fit for the drummer. It was the formation of this trio that would, in its own way, reshape the direction of jazz and improvised music to come, even as it remained closely aligned with the tradition from which it emerged. "So, Paul started his trio with [myself and] Joe Lovano, and [we did] the album It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago (1985), and there was this period where things were going good," says Frisell.

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