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Bill Frisell: 40 Years Of Friendship, Music And Mischief With Hal Willner

Ludovico Granvassu By

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Hal had a gift. He could see the inside of a person. He saw relationships before he heard music
Kindred spirits and artistic co-conspirators, Hal Willner and Bill Frisell have both devoured an inordinate amount of music with childlike abandon and glee, and then metabolized it into something utterly unique. Delving into their discographies is like getting lost in a treasure hunt where, at every corner, you unearth sonic gems that sound familiar while they take you by surprise.

Their paths were meant to cross. Luck had it that it happened almost four decades ago, leading to dozens of albums and projects. In this interview Bill Frisell recounts 40 years of friendship, music and mischief with Hal Willner.

Click here to read the Hal Willner memorial article.

All About Jazz: How did your collaboration with Hal Willner start?

Bill Frisell: Our first project together was the 1981 album Amarcord Nino Rota. That was shortly after I moved to New York, after living in Europe for awhile. I was pretty much unknown at the time. I had done a few recordings here and there, including some with Chet Baker and with Eberhard Weber. This was around the time when I had started rehearsing with Paul Motian but we had not recorded anything with Paul yet.

A very close friend of mine, D. Sharpe, played drums in the Carla Bley band, which had recorded a rendition of "8 1/2" for Amarcord Nino Rota. Hal had almost completed the album, but felt that there still was something missing. So he contacted me, trusting a recommendation from D. Sharpe. I met Hal and we went to the studio and did a solo version of "Juliet of the Spirits." So I can say that the beginning of my 40-year friendship and professional collaboration with Hal started out of his trust in our common friend D. Sharpe's judgment.

I can't even start telling you how many things we have done together in these four decades. The other day I started a list of all the albums and projects that I've worked on with Hal [see below]. It's so long. Almost every aspect of what I do, or have done, has been touched by Hal in one way or another. I am still in shock that I cannot talk to him, that he's not here in the house.

AAJ: Hal Willner often involved musicians that, at the time of the collaboration, were not as well-established as they are today, like in your case but also in the case of John Zorn. What do you think led him to feature both big names and emerging artists in his projects?

BF: That's who Hal was. He was a people person. He had a gift. He could see the inside of a person. He saw relationships before he heard music. It really upsets me when people look at some of the projects he has done and think that they're some kind of random thing. How could he, for instance, pair two seemingly different musicians like Sonny Rollins and Leonard Cohen? But he saw human connections. He broke down so many pre-conceptions about what people, and musicians, were "supposed to be doing."

He often acknowledged that, growing up in the '60s, it was less unusual to find this kind of juxtaposition. You could see Miles Davis and Crosby, Stills and Nash play back-to-back the same night in the same venue. Rigid boundaries between genres were less strong back then. That's also how I grew up, even though I'm a little older than him...

AAJ: After the release of Amarcord Nino Rota Hal Willner hoped to publish a second volume dedicated to Rota's work for film directors other than Federico Fellini. In an interview we did in July 2018, he recounted that you did a recording of "The Godfather" that was supposed to appear on that follow-up tribute, which never saw the light of day. What happened to that recording of "The Godfather"?

BF: That was an amazing recording session for me... It was with the first incarnation of the Paul Motian Trio, with me and Steve Lacy! I had played with Paul, but I had never played with Steve Lacy before. We went to the studio and did two takes. I still remember it. They were two amazing takes! Hal had asked me to write an arrangement of "The Godfather." So I mapped out a way for the three of us to go through that theme. In 2016, I recorded an album of motion picture themes, When You Wish Upon a Star, in which I included "The Godfather." For that recording session, I pulled up the same chart I had prepared for the session with Hal. It was funny for me to look at it again, all marked up with things like "Steve plays here," "Paul plays the melody." Indeed, there were plans for a second volume of the Nina Rota tribute... Unfortunately, I don't even know where the recordings are and if they exist anymore. I think they might have been lost in a fire at Hal's apartment, even though I might have a copy on a cassette somewhere... I'll have to look that up!

AAJ: Once he had identified the musicians for his projects, how did he work with them before, during and after the recording sessions?

BF: The word that keeps coming to mind is trust. I always felt like he trusted me and, therefore, I could stretch my own imagination as far as I could go, which, ultimately, is exactly what he was hoping for. I never felt afraid because when you were with him, you felt like you could really be yourself. There was nothing you needed to hold back. In addition to that, you knew that he would give you an opportunity, or a challenge, that you never had before. This way he would allow you to go past what you knew, and that's why some amazing things would happen. He would throw you in a situation that you didn't even realize you could handle. But he knew that you could...

For instance, in 2012 we did this project about a poem by Allen Ginsberg, "Kaddish," which we presented at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, Royce Hall in Los Angeles and SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. He asked me to write the music, but he didn't want me to play the guitar. That was the first time anyone acknowledged that I write music. He was looking at me as a musician, not just a guitarist. I appreciated that so much!

AAJ: Speaking of the "Kaddish" project, you also worked together on a number of albums dedicated to various poets and writers, from William S. Burroughs to Hunter Thompson. How did he blend his love for music with that for the written word?

BF: For Hal music, poetry and literature were all part of the same universe. I don't think he saw them as separate entities that needed to be blended. If you talked to him, there was this enthusiasm for everything. It was all mixed together: films, or paintings, or every possible kind of music. He was always looking for works that had been overlooked. He knew and found so many things. There was an ultimate openness about him. On many projects all these different strands—music, words, visuals—converged. For instance, he was very close to Ralph Steadman, the Welsh illustrator that had worked with Hunter Thompson. Everything was being integrated through Hal's lens. Ultimately, it all goes back to his capacity to go to the soul of everything he heard or read or saw, their origin... and when you get down that deep you realize that often things that are seemingly different have a lot in common. This way you may realize that the words that Allen Ginsberg was using may be coming from the same place John Coltrane's notes were coming from. These were all artists that were digging deep inside of themselves, in search of their humanity, and humanity doesn't have anything to do with a style, or a genre, or particular kind of art form.

AAJ: Another important collaboration with Hal Willner was for your album Unspeakable, which he produced. Whereas he would normally be the one calling you for his projects, in this case you called him to produce your album. Did that translate in a different working relationship?

BF: I think it was almost the same, insofar as he was hearing something in my music that I would not have necessarily heard myself. I think he had an idea of a "sound" that he knew I could do, but that he hadn't heard me put on a record before. When we were in the midst of the recording sessions, however, the process was similar to that of other projects with him. The album contained compositions that I had written, but there were also many things that we would find together. For instance, he had this huge library of old vinyl albums of "source music" from the NBC music library, stuff that they used to play on old TV shows. It was almost as if together we were building something from the ground up, creating a musical sculpture in which he would recycle bits and pieces from these old albums, then I would add something to them, and then he would react to that and so on...

AAJ: From what you describe, it sounds as if one of his greatest skills was to make the artist comfortable to venture in uncharted territories...

BF: He never forced you to into anything that you didn't want to do. But he would recognize something you had, without you having ever realized you had it. There are so many things that are part of what I play now that I have discovered spending a lot of time with Hal. When I played "Juliet of the Spirits" on Amarcord Nino Rota I had seen some films by Federico Fellini, but I didn't really know Nino Rota's music. And that's just an example of so many things I've absorbed from being with Hal over the years. I learned so much every time I was around him.

AAJ: Is there a special moment or anecdote or event that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Hal Willner?

BF: With a friendship that spanned four decades, this question is very difficult to answer. A lot of the memories have nothing to do with music or our work in a recording studio. For instance, I can think of the time spent together outside of the recording studio when we worked on Unspeakable. It was pure joy for me. Just being together all the time during those days in Los Angeles. Often when you do a recording session in a city where you don't live you go to a hotel. For that session we decided that, in order to save money, Hal and I would stay in this tiny one-room beach house he had in Venice, California. Every day we would wake up around seven o'clock. Hal had two bicycles, and we would ride all the way up to Malibu. Sometimes we'd go for a hike up the canyons, and then ride back, before going to the studio later in the day. Then we would go to movies or we would watch videos all night. Memories of this kind can be even stronger that the studio ones. It was so amazing just to hang out and hear what Hal had to say. His mind was going, going, going. All the time. Just trying to keep up with the enthusiasm that he had for things was tremendous.

Photo credit: Monica Jane Frisell

Selected list of Hal Willner recordings and projects involving Bill Frisell

Recordings

  • 1981—Bill Frisell "Juliet of the Spirits" Amarcord Nino Rota (Hannibal -reissued by Corbett vs. Dempsey)
  • 1984—Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Steve Lacy, "The Godfather" [recorded for a second album in tribute to Nino Rota which was never released]
  • 1987—Mathilde Santing Out of This Dream (WEA)
  • 1987—Marianne Faithfull Strange Weather (Island)
  • 1988—Various Artists Stay Awake (Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films) (A&M)
  • 1989—Gavin Friday & The Man Seezer Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves (Island)
  • 1989—Allen Ginsberg The Lion For Real (Antilles)
  • 1991—David Sanborn Another Hand (Elektra)
  • 1992—Various Artists Weird Nightmare (Meditations on Mingus) (Columbia)
  • 1994—Allen Ginsberg Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949-1993 (Rhino)
  • 1995—William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch (Warner Bros.)
  • 2000—Various Artists The Million Dollar Hotel -Music from the Motion Picture: (Interscope)
  • 2000—Various Artists Finding Forrester -Music from the Motion Picture (Interscope)
  • 2004— Bill Frisell Unspeakable (Nonesuch)
  • 2006—Various Artists Rogue's Gallery (Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, & Chanteys) (Anti)
  • 2006—Various Artists The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited (Shout! Factory)
  • 2007—Lucinda Williams West (Lost Highway)
  • 2012—Various Artists The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (Paris)
  • 2016—William S. Burroughs Let Me Hang You (Khannibalism)
  • 2020?—Various Artists -A Tribute to Marc Bolan and T. Rex

Live performances

  • 1987—Marianne Faithfull (Bottom Line, New York )
  • 2001—"The Harry Smith Project" (Royce Hall, Los Angeles)
  • 2004—"Shock and Awe: The Songs of Randy Newman" (Royce Hall, Los Angeles)
  • 2005—"Unspeakable" (Tonic, New York)
  • 2009—Gavin Friday's 50th Birthday Concert (Carnegie Hall, New York)
  • 2010—"American Songbook" (Lincoln Center, New York)
  • 2012—Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" (Park Avenue Armory, New York; Royce Hall, Los Angeles; SFJazz Center, San Francisco)
  • 2014—Tribute to Daniel Lanois (Massey Hall, Toronto)
  • 2015—Bill Frisell, Kenny Wollesen, Joan as Policewoman, Hal Willner "T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land" (Stone, New York)
  • 2017— Hunter S. Thompson's "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" (Town Hall, New York; SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco)
  • 2019—Laurie Anderson, Hal Willner, Shahzad Ismaily, and ANOHNI with Bill Frisell "She Who Saw Beautiful Things" (The Kitchen, New York)

Soundtracks

  • 1987—Robert Frank Candy Mountain
  • 2016—Dianne Dreyer Change in the Air

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