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Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

By Published: April 26, 2011
Frisell was caught in the ECM cycle that sometimes meant two or three years went by between recordings—necessitated by the label's steadfast insistence on remaining small and keeping the quality up—and as he became involved in more and more projects, that kind of delay simply became untenable. It's interesting to note that now, a decade after this interview took place, Frisell has left Nonesuch and signed with Savoy Jazz for a similar reason, only the timeframe has shrunk even further, with the guitarist currently involved in so many different projects that releasing one album per year isn't enough to keep up with his prodigious output. But despite scheduling issues necessitating his departure from not one, but two labels, Frisell is ever grateful for the opportunities and exposure that ECM provided so early in his career.

"I know how lucky I am," Frisell says. "It was basically like when I left my parents. I loved my parents and they supported me, but there was a time when I had to reject my parents, go out on my own and grow up. And leaving ECM had that feeling. It had been a huge presence even before I started recording for the label—those records [on ECM] were a big influence, from the time when I first heard them around 1969 or '70, like the Jarrett recordings; it was a big thing for me. And to be involved with the label ... but I felt like it was time—that I needed to find my own thing. I needed to get away from it, and Manfred has such a strong presence there; he did every recording in his way. I wanted to be able to not record in just two days, and I wanted to play with people he didn't like. It's the same feeling when a kid leaves home. I could've just stayed there and done whatever Manfred thought I should do, but I really felt like I needed to be on my own to find my own voice."

Even at the time of this interview, in the fall of 2001—and today, still, 10 years later—the spirit of ECM loomed large over Frisell's career, but so, too, did the elements he rejected. "I still related to the spontaneous part of ECM," Frisell recalls, "so leaving it was one of the hardest things, and it was really weird—and I don't know what Manfred thinks—but it was coincidental that Lee Townsend quit on the same day. I wrote a letter to Manfred, saying I wanted to leave, and one of the hardest things was that I was just developing this relationship with Lee, but I sent the letter anyway. And then I called Lee at the office, and said, 'I've got to tell you, I'm gonna leave.' There was just this dead silence, and he said, 'I have to call you back.' And he called back and said, 'You're not gonna believe this, but I just sent a letter to Manfred.' So Manfred gets these on the same day, and thought it was some kind of conspiracy, but it was a complete coincidence. So Lee leaves and immediately talks to me about being my manager, and it seemed perfect. It's weird, because Hans Wendell also quit around that time; Lee was my manager, and Hans continued to work for my publishing, and then Bob Hurwitz was there [at Nonesuch], so there were still people from ECM working with me."

But Frisell's never one to burn bridges, and it became clear, not long after, that his ongoing relationship with Eicher may have been severed, but that didn't preclude the two from working together again. "I thought, after that, 'Well Manfred is never gonna talk to me again,'" says Frisell. "But then I get this call to do this Gavin Bryars record [Requiem (1991)]. I thought, 'Is this for real?' I thought Manfred was so pissed, but I was so happy to go do that—he was so cool, and it felt good. Gavin's someone who I more recently became aware of. I met him when he played a piece that he wrote from one of my tunes ["Sub Rosa," based on In Line's "Throughout," released on 1994's Vita Nova]—an amazing thing, an abstraction of what I had played. I said, 'Wow.' It made me think it was what I wished I could do in my own writing. It was my very first meeting with him, in a restaurant with a bunch of people, and he gave me a walkman and said, 'Check this out,' and he really freaked me out. It was great to work with him; there's been something else in the works, and I'm hoping we'll do more stuff. "

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