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Bill Frisell: The ECM Years

Bill Frisell: The ECM Years
John Kelman By

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This kind of music wasn't being represented anywhere. For them to present it in such a high-class way--their covers looked different, the vinyl thicker, and they were all consistently so good sounding--ECM went into this really uncharted area.
Nothing trumps right place, right time. Sure, most artists pay plenty of dues— sometimes in the public eye, oftentimes not—but for some, there's that serendipitous event that leads to greater visibility. Bill Frisell, surely one of the most important and influential guitarists of his generation, undoubtedly deserves all the accolades and artistic freedom he's achieved in a career now in its fourth decade, but there's little doubt about the impact that one recording had for the guitarist, on a label that, since the beginning of the 1970s, had established itself as one of the most important re-definers of what jazz is and could be. When the guitarist, a few short years after graduating from Berklee College of Music, in Boston, found himself at Tonstudio Bauer, in Ludwisgburg, recording German bassist Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979) alongside vibraphonist Gary Burton and vocalists Norma Winstone and Bonnie Herman, there's little doubt that it was a single event that would shape the guitarist's career to come, cementing his early reputation as a guitarist to watch, as he entered the 1980s as one of the label's six stringers of choice.

"I went to Berklee in 1971, for one semester, and I didn't like it," Frisell recalls, in a 2001 interview that is now seeing the light of day for the first time. "I went back to Colorado, where I grew up, and sorta hung around there for awhile. Then I went back in 1975, and I took to it more; I was more ready or something. But I stayed there for two years and majored in arranging; I wanted to play guitar, but I thought I could get more information to apply to it doing it that way, rather than taking guitar lessons. I had the basic playing guitar thing together, and I was trying to get as much theoretical info as I could. Herb Pomeroy was one of the best teachers I ever had—I got so much from him—but also, there was Mike Gibbs.

"So I took all of his classes and all of Herb's," Frisell continues. "Mike Gibbs had a relationship with Gary Burton, and a lot of people that were on ECM were associated with Mike, for whom he had written music. So, after I got out of Berklee, I went and lived in Belgium for a year, and this is where I started to write my own music, and tried to find my own voice. Soon after I got to Belgium, in 1978, I get a call from Mike Gibbs, who had a tour of England with his own big band, and his regular guitarist, Philip Catherine, wasn't able to do the tour. I had played in Mike's band at school, so I knew the music, so he called me and asked me if I could do his tour. There were a lot of British musicians in the band, like [drummer] John Marshall and [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler and [saxophonist] Charlie Mariano. Eberhard Weber was playing bass, so I was kind of thrown in with a lot of the guys I had been listening to already.

"It was just an incredible opportunity for me to be able to play with all these guys," Frisell concludes. "So, during that tour, there was a little area every night where Mike Gibbs let Eberhard and me play some free improv, and it really felt great; it felt like we were connecting—there'd be moments where it lifted off, with just two of us playing. This was in October or something, of 1978, and Eberhard had this recording coming up with Gary Burton that was going to be Fluid Rustle. Man, I couldn't believe it; I had done a couple little recordings in Belgium, but nothing that was a big recording. That was how I met Manfred Eicher, ECM label head/producer] the first time, and I think I was so terrified of the whole thing, I didn't know what I was doing. Even traveling and staying in the hotel, I didn't know what to do; I didn't even know how you checked into a hotel or anything. And I wasn't able to get much going; I was pretty inhibited during that recording."

Listening back to Fluid Rustle, it's clear that Frisell's performance on his first major recording was marred by a certain tentativeness. Still, what's most remarkable about the record—one that, over time, has emerged as one of Weber's most memorable recordings—is its sublime combination of vibes, guitar and voice, soaring to dramatic peaks while remaining filled with the subtlety, nuance and transparency that had become touchstones for ECM. That Frisell was young and green, among a group of far more seasoned players, was largely obvious only to the guitarist. "I didn't think I had made any kind of impression at all on Manfred," Frisell says. "He was just trying to get me to do something, you know, and he tried to get more sound. I was too freaked out to do anything. I don't think I ruined the record or anything, but I don't think I made a very big splash with anybody. So, I stayed in Belgium for a little while longer and I stayed in contact with Eberhard, and then I moved to New York; that would be 1979."

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Bill Frisell Events

Date Event Time Tickets
Sep17Sat Bill Frisell
Mountain Theater
Mill Valley, CA
11:00 am
Sep18Sun Bill Frisell
Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey, CA
12:00 pm
Oct4Tue Bill Frisell
Blue Note Jazz Club
New York, NY
8:00 pm
Oct5Wed Bill Frisell
Blue Note Jazz Club
New York, NY
8:00 pm
Oct6Thu Bill Frisell
Blue Note Jazz Club
New York, NY
8:00 pm
Oct7Fri Bill Frisell
Blue Note Jazz Club
New York, NY
8:00 pm
Oct8Sat Bill Frisell
Blue Note Jazz Club
New York, NY
8:00 pm

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