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Interviews

Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

By Published: April 26, 2011
More years passed, but in 1996, Frisell got another call from Eicher, this time to record trumpeter Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
b.1930
trumpet
's Angel Song (1997). "That was a fantastic record," Frisell enthuses."That's one of my favorite things I've ever done. Working with Kenny—that's getting into someone who I listened to a lot before I got to play with him. Kenny did that record with Keith [Jarrett] and Dave [Holland], Gnu High (1976); that's one of those classic records—unbelievably great. And then I also heard him with Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
, with Dave Holland and [drummer] Barry Altschul
Barry Altschul
Barry Altschul
b.1943
drums
; it was the early '70s, and already he was a total individual. I've never heard anyone else play that way, writing those tunes for Gnu High ... and yet he's so humble, just quietly working away on his stuff."

Perhaps it was Wheeler's introspective nature that dovetailed perfectly with Frisell's own humble personality, but the trumpeter also considers Angel Song—an intimate chamber album also featuring Holland and saxophonist Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz
b.1927
sax, alto
—to be a special album among his many recordings. It was also Frisell's first encounter with Holland, whom he'd go on to record with, releasing Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch) shortly before this interview took place. "Talk about a big person," Frisell says of Holland. "Hearing him with Miles [Davis]—when I really got deep into jazz music, it was when he played with Miles. That's as big a thing as could be—someone that was in that world, and then, after he left Miles, those first [Chick] Corea CDs, like Circle: Paris Concert (ECM, 1972) and the stuff with Sam Rivers
Sam Rivers
Sam Rivers
1923 - 2011
sax, tenor
. Aside from his amazing musicianship, I also looked to him as a kind of inspiration—someone who stayed true to what he believed in. I remember him being totally committed to Sam Rivers. He could've gone any way, but he said, 'I'm going to do this thing.' He was strong and determined, staying true to what he believed in. He's one of those guys we need more of."

Frisell hasn't recorded any more sessions for ECM since Angel Song, but he never considers any doors to be permanently closed. "I hope things are at a point where I can still do special things, like Angel Song, with Manfred. What makes ECM still one of the most amazing labels is how he's managed to survive; when you look at all the little companies that came along, for his label to make it through 30 [now over 40] years, it's amazing."

From green Berklee grad to musical innovator and touchstone for so many aspiring guitarists—despite amassing a large discography as a leader at the time of this interview, and an even larger one as a guest—Frisell has remained humble and grateful for the opportunities that have come his way in the past 30-plus years, playing with so many of the musical heroes significant to him as he was coming up. "Paul Motian was someone who gave me a chance to be myself early on," says Frisell, "and Eberhard, he was one of those guys that heard something in what I was doing and let it come out, at the very beginning, before I even recorded. I'm so grateful to him for that. He's really the one that told Manfred, 'Listen to him'; he had that tape, and he said, 'You've gotta check this guy out.' Musically, he's one of those guys who are complete individuals; he's got his own sound and he's written some beautiful music. Just that as a model—it's somehow rarer and rarer to get these guys who don't sound like anyone else in jazz, and Eberhard created this whole context in both his playing and his writing.

"I could say some of the same things about Jan [Garbarek]," Frisell continues. "To play sax and have your own sound—how many thousands of sax players really have their own thing? There's so much that he did—he goes back to the very beginning of ECM: those records he did with [guitarist] Terje Rypdal
Terje Rypdal
Terje Rypdal
b.1947
guitar
, Arild and [drummer] Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen
b.1943
drums
. It's unbelievable; it's like being taken into some other plane. It was new, and Jan's another one of those guys. For Manfred to bring some of those guys like Eberhard and Jan to the world—I don't know if they'd have been known outside Europe, were it not for ECM. And Arild gave me my first chance. He called me up out of the blue; he hadn't heard a note I'd played, and yet he was one of those sweet, good people, who made me feel safe, at home and comfortable to be myself."

Paul Motian Trio today, from left: Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Joe Lovano


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