The indefatigable Bill Frisell

Mario Calvitti By

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Since he first appeared on the international scene in the late '70s, Bill Frisell has shown considerable originality and strong individuality. Thanks to an instrumental voice that is both immediately recognizable and immensely versatile, he continues to stand out among the artists that have contributed to rewriting the role of guitar in jazz and beyond.

Adept in jazz, blues, country, new classical, and pop music, Frisell has spent his entire career exploring all aspects of American music, redefining it in the process and opening it up in unexpected ways, as documented through a discography which includes more than 300 albums, including collaborations of all kinds. Recently, he devoted himself to the rediscovery of the music that shaped his youth, recording two albums (Guitar in the Space Age and When You Wish Upon a Star) in which he pays tribute to the '60s.

2017 has been a very productive year: a documentary by Australian filmmaker Emma Franz—Bill Frisell: A Portrait—premiered in Austin, Texas in March. At the end of May, a duo album with bassist Thomas Morgan was released to wide acclaim, marking the return to ECM Records. Throughout the year, he has toured extensively. In July, we had the opportunity to talk to him on the occasion of the first performance of his European summer tour in Bologna.

All About Jazz: Let's start with your latest album Small Town. How did your return to ECM come about?

Bill Frisell: I guess I never really left ECM. It's always been a part of me, through other people's projects. The duet with Thomas Morgan is also a collaboration. I am always uncomfortable with the business side of being a musician, all these things like contracts you're supposed to be following... I still have a contract with Okeh/Sony, but Wulf Müller who works for Sony is a friend of Manfred Eicher, and I was so happy that they could talk to each other and find an understanding, "if Bill does this now, and then we do this later." For this recording with Thomas they talked and everything was cool, and we all continue to be friends, like nice human beings talking to each other. So many times the business part gets in the way of the music, that's one of the most frustrating things for me. Sometimes I'm playing in one place and the organizers say "You are not allowed to play here next week because you played here last week," and it doesn't have anything to do with the music.

AAJ: Did you play with Thomas Morgan prior in a duo setting?

BF: We did, one year before. We played also at the Village Vanguard as a duo, and that's when Sarah Humphries, who works for ECM, heard us and got very excited about the idea of doing a duo recording.

AAJ: So whose idea was it to do this recording?

BF: Well, ECM proposed it. Thomas has done a lot of work with ECM, and Thomas and I have been playing together for a long time... I don't know when I met him first, through Joey Baron many years ago, and then gradually we have started playing more and more. This connection with Thomas is incredibly free. I can play whatever I want, and it always feels that he's connected with anything that I play.

AAJ: Do you have other future projects with ECM?

BF: We recorded two nights so there's more music, I hope that maybe a "Volume Two" will come out. Later in the summer I'm recording with Andrew Cyrille also for ECM. I'm looking forward to that. Then I'm doing another album on my own for Okeh. With ECM it's been a really long association. I think I first met Manfred in 1978, so that's—is that possible?—almost 40 years ago... So it's like an ongoing thing, we have different times, different things are happening, ups and downs, but it's always a part of my life. So many people that I worked with have links to ECM. Lee Townsend, who's my manager and produces many of my albums, I met him at ECM. Bob Hurwitz, who is at Nonesuch, worked for ECM. Saudades Tourneen, the people who organize my gigs, started with Thomas Stowsend who was with ECM. Hans Wendl who follows my publishing used to work with ECM. It's incredible, even Wulf Müller who is Okeh/Sony had something to do with distribution at ECM, so it's all somehow connected. It's kind of amazing actually, it's like vines on a tree.

AAJ: Tonight you and your band will play the live soundtrack for a movie by Bill Morrison, "The Great Flood," a documentary on the great Mississippi flood in 1927.

BF: Yes, it's the only time we will do this in the whole tour. Tonight is the first time ever that we play it as a trio, it's always been with Ron Miles on trumpet. It will be a little bit different again, it'll be new for us tonight.

AAJ: Your music has always had a strong visual component, many of your projects are linked to still or moving images. How do you approach composing music for a project like this?

BF: It's difficult to explain, I'm inspired by images... I mean, it's not like I see images when I play. I get it like a feeling not like a literal thing, I just feel the energy. When I was young I thought that I would draw pictures like cartoons or things like that. When I make music it's coming from the same source. For all artists and musicians, or even poets, writers and anyone creative it's all coming from the same source. Doing something like this film was an incredible learning experience. I was reading books about it and learned a lot. The story is about the Mississippi river flood in 1927, which was kind of similar to that provoked by the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans. This huge, horrible thing that happened and the effect that it had on all the people. It changed the whole history of the United States. People had to leave and move, it changed the music, it changed everything. When I first wrote the music we travelled with the band and Bill Morrison, we all went together along the river to New Orleans, and we played in New Orleans and different towns along the river. I was thinking about a lot of things when we did it...

AAJ: You didn't actually see the movie before?

BF: No the music was happening while Bill was with us travelling and he was gathering all the material, because it's made from old films put together.

AAJ: So you were working in parallel while looking for inspiration?

BF: Yes! Which was great, because usually it's different. Many times you see the film when it's finished and then you put the music to it, but in this case he was hearing the music beforehand. I think it was really a true collaboration that way... and even now that it's finished and we perform it every night it still keeps changing. Sometimes Bill even changes the film.

AAJ: When you write music for these projects, do you keep some space for improvisation? How do you combine it with composition?

BF: It's both composition and improvisation. First of all I write a lot of music, more than we need. When we did "The Great Flood" I was reading books, reading about Louis Armstrong and all kinds of other things, trying to get ideas... so I would write, write, write. and then a lot of the process for me is taking away, like editing. And also Bill Morrison had a lot to feed. During that tour we were recording all the gigs and he was listening to them and he would think "oh this would be good for this section and this for that section" He had something to do with choosing, and with the structure and everything else. At the end, so much of what I write has to do with the way the guys in the band play it, so it changes. There's the big structure of the whole film but, within that, there are these little chapters, and then there's definitely a lot of improvisation that happens within.

AAJ: It was the same for Buster Keaton movies?

BF: In that case we had to follow the action on the screen. That was very most challenging. Buster Keaton is very fast!

AAJ: That must have been tough for the drummer...

BF: Joey Baron was great, a lot of the Buster Keaton stuff was really about the drums, all based on rhythm...

AAJ: Last month here in Bologna we had the European premiere of the documentary Emma Franz made about you and your music, Bill Frisell: A Portrait. Have you seen the final result? What do you think of it?

BF: It's difficult for me. It's almost embarrassing for me to have to watch and listen to me speaking all the time. What she tried to do was to show the creative process or the struggle... It doesn't even need to be about me. She tried to get deeper into what the process is for the artist, and how we try to arrive at where we are going.

Emma was with me for some years, she would come to gigs, and then she went away, and I thought "What happened?." She spent more years putting everything together. I didn't see it until it was finished, I didn't know what to expect... I was really happy with the result. I saw it for the first time just a few months ago at the world premiere in Texas. There are incredible things for me like the parts with Paul Motian, in the film there are the last notes of the last gig we played with that trio, or the things with Jim Hall. Lots of stuff that are really personal and important to me. I feel lucky that there is some document of those things, that someone captured those things on film. I like the way she used the music too. I think it shows some of my music that you don't always see in a CD. It shows more of what happens every day and the way you learn, the way things grow.

AAJ: Now you are in the process of moving back to NYC, where you have lived in the '80s. Is it because of all the work you do in New York?

BF: My wife and I had been thinking about it for a while, but it was in the last few months that we decided to come back. It feels good. New York always felt like home, so this feels like our coming back home. So many of my friends, Tony and Kenny are there, and Thomas... When I left New York for Seattle it felt good just to go away, and there were incredible musicians in Seattle, just like you have in California, or in Rome, everywhere there's amazing music. It's not like New York is the only place, but it definitely remains a magnet.

AAJ: Another musician with whom you had a very long association, John Zorn, is also based in New York. How did you first get involved with his music?

BF: That's another long long story... different things happened at different times. In the very early '80s John was working at a record store together with Tim Berne. Tim introduced me to John and then we just started playing, we did duo gigs. He had these game pieces like "Cobra" and "Track & Field," and I played in those. Then we did some recordings like Spillane and Godard and The Big Gundown. That was all before Naked City, which came later... I don't know when we started to do things, maybe 1983 or something like that.

AAJ: For John Zorn's label you have also recorded a solo experimental record, Silent Comedy, very different from your other records.

BF: That was really different for me because I didn't think I did any preparation. We recorded everything in a few hours. I came to the studio, just played, and then it was finished. I wanted to do something really fast, there's no composition, no preparation...

AAJ: Did you have some reference in mind?

BF: Nothing, I just wanted to play and be with John. We would decide what the titles were after I played. Everything was finished in just one sitting, recorded and mixed. I don't spend a lot of time in the studio, not like a rock band or something. Usually when I do an album it's two or three days of recording, then few days of mixing, but it's still more like worrying about every little detail. For Silent Comedy I just wanted to do it, and also there was sort of a connection with John to be just me and him in the studio and see what happens.

AAJ: One of your latest projects is Music for Strings, which is basically a new version of the 858 Quartet. Have you recorded something new with this group?

BF: Actually there's a new Bill Morrison film that's called "Electricity." It's an old animated film about how electricity works. We recorded music for that film and that's something we do live, we've done lots of gigs with that group. Before there was the 858 Quartet which was... about 15 years ago. That was sort of the beginning of the new group. Since then we've done lots and lots of gigs and we keep playing new music. One year ago we did a tour in Europe and again it was more different music. Next fall we'll come to Europe to do a tour. When I say 858 Quarter everybody thinks at the Gerhard Richter project. I just wanted to make it clear that now it's something else, but it still feautures the same people that recorded Signs of Life and Big Sur, with drums added.

AAJ: You have always had a lot of different projects and collaborations. How do you manage to handle them all?

BF: Sometimes I think I'm going crazy! It's hard to remember everything. Maybe it's because I'm getting older. I'm 66 years old and still every day there is something new. Two days ago I was in Canada playing with Thomas Morgan and now I'm here with the trio doing "The Great Flood." Every day is like a whole another world.

AAJ: Do you have some favorite group setting? Maybe the trio?

BF: Well I don't know if it's really a favorite. All these different people that I play with, they're like really like such a family, I feel so close to all of them. I was just thinking about it this morning. I was feeling excited that I would be playing again with Tony and Kenny. But of course I was excited when I was playing with Thomas. I feel really lucky, I don't think there's a favorite band... it's like going in some kind of a circle and every time I come back it's a little bit different. It always stays new this way, somehow, and, as a result, I'm still excited for the next thing.

AAJ: What are your future projects?

BF: Later in the summer I am going to do a solo album, just alone, but probably different than Silent Comedy. All I know is that all the music will be my own compositions. I'm going do it in Portland, Oregon, where I've done a few of my albums. It won't come out till... I don't know when, maybe next spring. And then, like I said, there's the Andrew Cyrille recording. It's been great to play with him too, he's somebody that I listened to for many years. We would see each other, we would meet, but we didn't start playing together until just a few years ago. Then there is Charles Lloyd, I've been playing a lot with Charles, we've been recording a new album, I don't know when that will come out. All next year I have several gigs with Charles Lloyd, just lots of things....

AAJ: Claudia Engelhart during your tours is acting as your manager and sound engineer, and she is recording all of your concerts. Do you select the ones for your "Live Download Series"?

BF: There's a lot of stuff, so much that I can't even remember what we have. So every once in a while it seems like a good idea to stop. I always feel that the live thing is always different from what's on a CD. There's so much stuff, and I don't listen to it myself. Even when I make a CD I don't like to listen to my own things. Usually it's my manager dealing with that. I was just talking to Claudia that I want to have her be more involved, because she's always there, she has a better memory and is better placed to say "Oh wow that was a good gig." I forget, the next day I don't remember, it's too much to put out...

AAJ: What is the response to your download series?

BF: I think it's been a while since something came out... The response seems good, I think people are happy...

Claudia comes to call Bill, it's time for the soundcheck. We stop our conversation thanking the artist, and looking forward to the evening concert and all the coming projects he anticipated.

Photo credit: Andrea Rotili

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