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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.
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