Bill Frisell: Mhmm.
TIH: How does one go about curating a tribute to someone who’s been such an influential figure for such a long time?
BF: Oh, wow. The whole thing is kind of overwhelming, to tell you the truth. But luckily Joe’s there and I don’t know if you know Hans Wendl who’s also helping organize the whole thing, he’s known Paul—he used to work for ECM way way back, he knew Paul, he actually went on tour as a roadie with Keith Jarrett’s trio way back.
TIH: Oh, ok.
BF: All of us, Hans, Joe, and myself have known Paul for so long. I met him—I don’t know if you want me to go into how I met him and stuff…
TIH: Yeah, we’ll talk about that eventually, so if you want to go into now, I’m curious, especially since you and Joe particularly, your careers are so closely linked with Paul’s.
BF: Yeah, I mean, it was just…I never would have imagined now—it goes all the way back to when I was in high school which was in—I graduated high school in 1969 and a couple years before that, I was playing guitar and I was playing clarinet in the school band. I was getting pretty fired up about music playing rock ‘n’ roll stuff, you know. But then I heard Wes Montgomery and it was like this whole world opened up. And then I bought a Downbeat magazine and there was Charles Lloyd on the front cover—I remember this first Downbeat that I bought—and I saw this concert coming to town (this was in Denver, Colorado, where I grew up) Charles Lloyd was coming. So, I was like, wow, I want to find out about jazz, so I go to this concert and Paul was playing drums at this concert. So the first jazz concert I went to in high school, Paul was playing. And, you know, from that moment, it’s like this whole world of music opened up for me. For me, he became one of those larger than life figures, you know, as I started to find out more about music listening to Sonny Rollins and Miles and Thelonious Monk and Paul was right in there with those guys. I never imagined that one day the phone would ring and he would be asking me to play with him.
TIH: Yeah. I mean, I read in one interview you gave a few years ago, you described getting that call to play with Paul as being sort of a BAM moment for you…
BF: Oh yeah. It was really huge and not for anything…it wasn’t about…at the beginning, we didn’t even have any gigs, really. It wasn’t about making any money or anything like that, but it was this opportunity for me to really be myself in the music. He was calling me to be—it wasn’t like just another guitar player he was looking for, it was more like a personality I guess he was looking for. And I felt like doing his music, I was able to find my own music somehow.
TIH: What were those first sessions like for you?
BF: Well, the very first time I went to play with him was in 1981, like January of 1981, and you know, I’d never met him, but the phone rang and it was him and I couldn’t believe it. (laughing) And he said “Hi. This is Paul Motian. Do you want to come over to my house…or, my apartment…and play?” And I was like, “What?!” I could not believe it. So, I go over there and it’s me and Paul and Marc Johnson was there who I’d never met either at that point. And Marc was the last bass player to play with Bill Evans—you know Paul’s history with Bill Evans—and I came in there and they were talking about…Bill had just passed away recently, so they were talking about that. So I was just feeling like, what am I doing here, this electric guitar player, you know? They were trying to figure out what tune to play. And they said, well, let’s play ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, which is this George Gershwin tune that I really associated with Bill Evans.
BF: It was another one of these kind of heavy moments when I found myself drawn into this sort of unreal, dreamlike..you know, playing that tune with those guys. And playing electric guitar? How am I fitting in with this, you know? I don’t know. He thought it was ok, I guess. We kept on playing and he kept calling me back and I’d go over there every week or every few days even. And sometimes different people, first with Marc Johnson, and then Joe came over and eventually led to what was—the first gig we did was a quartet. It wasn’t until about nine months later that we did our first gig. And a little while after that a European tour and that’s when we recorded. That was the first time I recorded with Paul, as a quintet.
TIH: Oh, OK.
BF: And gradually, not too many years later, it was like he was just getting things down to the essentials or something. I mean, at that time, Paul was really committed to…I feel so lucky to have been a part of that. He was really committing to writing his own music and making his own band—his own world of music. Somehow, the timing worked out that I just came into that right as he was really doing that. Just to be a part of his process.
TIH: It sounds like an amazing experience.
BF: Yeah, it was just incredible. I mean, early on, it was a lot more rehearsals and stuff. We used to play a lot at Joe’s. Joe had a loft in New York and we used to rehearse there a lot. But, gradually, after a few years went by and we got more and more gigs, it seemed like the rehearsals just stopped and it just became more like the language was in place and we just played. We didn’t really have to talk about anything.
TIH: Yeah, I wondered about that because, from what I’ve been reading, it seems like Paul was not particularly keen on rehearsal all that often.
BF: No. Early on, things were more figured out, but then, I think that was a period of sort of establishing what the…“language” I guess is the only way I know how to describe it.
TIH: I wondered what sort of a role…I mean, you played with Joe and with Paul for a very long time and I wondered what kind of a role…I understand that your relationship and your comfort in playing with each other plays a role in that, but what about things like intuition even or familiarity and that sort of thing?
BF: Yeah, I mean, it was this sort of double thing. There was definitely that. It was almost like some of it felt like we were reading each other’s minds, or a lot of the time it felt that way. There was that intuition thing. But at the same time, I never knew what was gonna happen. I think that’s what kept it going for so long. Every time we played, it felt like it was new. So there was sort of like this double thing: the comfort of being with these guys that you knew so well, but then Paul, he just never stood still. Like, every note he played was searching for something just beyond the horizon, so it made it—I wouldn’t say “nervous” but always just right on the edge of not knowing whether we were going to make it or not (laughs). But I think that’s the quality that kept—you know, if we had just gone through the same thing every time we played, it would never have lasted that long.
TIH: That’s interesting, because, as I was preparing to talk to you, I read several interviews that both you and Paul had given in the last ten years or so. And you frequently mention the guitar’s ability to mimic, in a sense, or take on the characteristics of several different instruments. And Paul, at the same time, in one interview at least, refers to sitting at the drum set as being like having something like a full orchestra at his disposal.
BF [laughing]: Oh, yeah.
TIH: So I thought it was interesting that you would both take a similar approach to your instruments.
BF: That definitely makes sense for what it felt like playing with him. Because it wasn’t like…of course he’s playing drums, but it’s more like you jump into this amazing kaleidoscope of sound. You know, it was like just anything…I think that’s what, where you’re using your imagination to its fullest where there’s no limits on what you’re…I mean, it’s impossible to describe in words what happens when you’re really in the midst of that. But definitely, it was like we were in the same place. It was just the most joyous feeling.
TIH: That’s really cool. You talked about that first session, when you first went over and you’re playing Gershwin and I thought it was interesting because this sort of thing just keeps coming up recently for me. You’re having this tribute to Paul, it seems to me that jazz is the kind of music that lends itself to the idea of the tribute, in that there’s always this sense of knowing your past and referencing the past through standards like Gershwin, how those are always present and those links to the past are how you propel yourself into the future, if that makes any sense…
BF: Yeah, definitely. And just—well, the connections. It’s incredible that every time I play there’s like some—it’s like blood flowing…I don’t know, it’s so connected. You know, when I played with Paul and we played a Thelonious Monk tune, I knew that he had played with Thelonious Monk. I felt like I was getting this one handshake away from the source of the music or something and it just keeps spreading around like that. And Paul played with so many, even since he met Joe and me, he just kept playing with younger people and all these generations got to play with him. Somehow, it’s all connected like some circulatory system or something. I don’t know.
TIH: That’s really cool. I think it’s a great thing that you’re doing, this tribute, to pay respect to a friend and mark his legacy.
BF: Well, you know, at the beginning, when he first passed away, I just really didn’t know what, I was kind of lost as far as able to play the music. It was just like this giant chasm, this empty hole as far as thinking about how am I ever going to be able to play this music again and I just didn’t know if I was going to be able to. I didn’t want it to be like trying to get back to something that we had done already and, like a couple months after he passed away, there was a little gathering at the Village Vanguard—like a memorial thing—with not so many people as will be at this next thing, but that was the first time I tried…Joe and I played just duo, we played his tunes there and it was just such a relief in a way. Like, “Wow!” it really felt like Paul was there with us. It was almost like he was handing it over, saying it was OK to just go on and play the music. It felt so good, like the music was still alive and soon after that, I started playing it with some of my bands and stuff. And it started to feel like, “wow, this is really—it’s not just staying stagnant in one place” The music still felt alive. So now, doing this concert, it’s like a real chance for all these people who had played with him and stuff to play more of the music. It’s really good.
TIH: That’s great that you’re keeping it alive that way. We have reached our—well, we have passed our 15-minute mark. I understand you’re busy, so I won’t keep you.
BF: Well, I hope you got enough. Thanks for being interested in this stuff.
TIH: I think it’s great. Those are issues I’ve had on my mind in various forms for the last several weeks, so I think it’s almost serendipitous that all of this kind of stuff is coming together at the same time.
BF: Well, great. Are you calling from New York?
TIH: I’m not. I’m in Columbus, OH, actually.
BF: Oh, wow. So you probably won’t be at the concert then.
TIH: No, I won’t be at the concert as much as I wish I could be, it’s not going to be possible.
BF: Well, thanks so much for listening. It’s been great.
TIH: It’s been great talking to you. I wish we had more time, but, you know, I completely understand. I’ll get to working on this thing and I’ll get an article out as soon as I can.
BF: Alright. Thank you so much.
TIH: Thank you, too.