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Interviews

Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

By Published: April 26, 2011
"There were two dates with Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
[1986's Fragments and 1988's The Paul Bley Quartet]. He's another one of my heroes, who I've been listening to forever—even before ECM. He's a giant historical figure, and to play with him was another dream come true. I think it was a suggestion, from Manfred, for that band [which also included Motian and British saxophonist John Surman
John Surman
John Surman
b.1944
saxophone
]. That first record [Fragments] was the very first time we ever played together, and then, during that year, we did a long European tour, went to Martinique, and played a bunch of gigs that year, and that was the last time we played. The second record [1988's The Paul Bley Quartet] was totally improvised; we never said a word, we just played. Every night, we didn't know what was going to happen. Paul's looking into the whole history; he's taking it about as far as it can—you look at Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and then Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
. I see Paul Bley as setting the stage for Keith Jarrett."



Paul Motian Band, early 1980s, from left:
Bill Frisell, Billy Drewes, Paul Motian, Ed Schuller, Joe Lovano


So, it was another busy year—that also included the start of Bass Desires, bassist Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson
b.1953
bass
's supergroup with Frisell, another guitarist who'd also arrived by this time, John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
, and ex-Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
drummer Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine
b.1954
drums
—but most important was Frisell's continued work as a leader. His next record, 1988's Lookout for Hope, was the guitarist's first recording with a permanent band that would continue on, in one shape or another, for nearly the next decade. "We played for maybe a year or so, and we'd been trying to get it together," Frisell recalls. "It was great. It was an important moment for me, really, when I finally felt ready to have my own band—and I had my best friends. I knew [bassist] Kermit Driscoll
Kermit Driscoll
Kermit Driscoll
b.1956
bass
back from Berklee, and the record with Chet Baker
Chet Baker
Chet Baker
1929 - 1988
trumpet
[Chet Baker & Steve Houben (52e Rue Est, 1980)] was with Kermit. I met him back in 1975 with [pianist] Emil Viklicky
Emil Viklicky
Emil Viklicky
b.1948
piano
. I also met [cellist] Hank Roberts
Hank Roberts
Hank Roberts
b.1954
cello
at Berklee. So, now I'm starting to do my own thing, and it was interesting how it happened. Lee Townsend had taken over Bob Hurwitz's job at ECM, and every now and then, when Manfred was too busy, he'd let him produce a record, including mine. So that was the beginning of my relationship with Lee, and it goes on to this day—he manages me as well. It was engineered by James Farber, who also did Rambler, and that was one of the first times I worked with him. Manfred normally had [engineer] Jan Erik [Kongshaug], but he couldn't come, so that was the first time James did something with Manfred."

Lookout for Hope represented another watershed for Frisell. In fact, while he only released three albums as a leader, each one represented a significant milestone: In Line, his first record as a leader; Rambler, his first to work with a group; and Lookout for Hope, his first with the group that he'd continue with until 1991's Where in the World? (Nonesuch, 1991). While Roberts would move on to other things (but return later as a member of Frisell's current 858 Quartet), Frisell, Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron
Joey Baron
Joey Baron
b.1955
drums
continued touring for another four years, in groups varying from trio to sextet. Its last gig was at the 1995 Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, a performance—complete with the films—of Music For The Films Of Buster Keaton: Go West and Music For The Films Of Buster Keaton: The High Sign/One Week, both released by Nonesuch the same year.

The release of Lookout for Hope, however, represented another parting of ways for Frisell and ECM. "The best way to describe it," says Frisell, "is that there were a number of issues: I was doing more and more things with more people, and I was moving a little faster than Manfred was able to record. So I became frustrated with recording the quartet; we were ready to record that first record before that [March, 1987], and we had to keep waiting. Finally he was ready, and he let Lee do it. And I was ready to do something else after that, and he started postponing again, and I was really frustrated not being able to do it. There's a moment when it feels right to do something, and I didn't want to miss those moments; with Nonesuch, I've been able to record when I've wanted, and that's been the most luxurious thing. Usually when I have a project that feels right, they just say, 'Go ahead and do it.'"


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