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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...

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Bill Frisell
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Cambridge, MA
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Bill Frisell Trio
Village Vanguard
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Bill Frisell Trio
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