Bill Frisell on playing with Paul Motian: the rest of the interview

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell

Earlier this year, I interviewed jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell about a memorial concert he was curating in memorial of his longtime friend and collaborator Paul Motian. That concert has long since come and gone, but I’m not sure I ever shared the full transcript of the interview with you. At the time, I remember, I just wanted to play the recording of our conversation for everyone I knew, simply because it was so surreal. The man has been in business for a long time. The stories he can–and does–tell are remarkable. He’s played an integral role in the last 30 years of jazz. There’s no downplaying his experiences or their importance in the oral history of an American art form. And as I sat in my car, engine off, tape running, fingers freezing, praying my notoriously spotty cell phone reception wouldn’t suddenly drop the most interesting phone call of my life, I had to constantly remind myself that this was for real.

Of course, it wasn’t practical at the time, to give you all the full interview. But I think the things he says, especially about his introduction to jazz and that very first session with Paul Motian are just too important to keep to myself. But now, with the news that Bill will bring his Big Sur Quintet to the Wexner Center in Columbus this December, I think this is a good time to bring you the rest of my interview with Bill Frisell.

From an interview conducted in March 2013.

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.

TIH: Yeah…

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.

Much more can be found here.

Wintergatan – wherein Kate continues her obsession with Swedish electro-pop chamber, accordion, and theremin

Wintergatan

Toy piano, accordion, glockenspiel, theremin, traktofon, synths and more synths… These are the things dreams are made of, my friends.

If you’ve been following The Indie Handbook over the past few years, you know that often, my role here ends up being the Swedish ambassador of sorts. It’s not that I think we don’t cover Sweden enough, it’s just that there is so much great music coming out of Scandinavia right now.  And when I talk about Sweden, it usually is somehow related to this guy, Martin Molin.

MartinYou may know Martin as part of the brilliant band Detektivbyrån, that I covered way back in 2010, or you may know him from that lovely remix of Those Dancing Days that I mentioned last year. At any rate, you can’t have missed him and his signature tinny toy piano, theremin, and glockenspiel sounds, or my undying devotion for it all. Blame it all on my weakness for a good accordion part if you like, though you must admit that it is a tragically underrated instrument. Or blame my obsession with his particular alt chamber sounds, mixing low-fi percussion instruments (scissors and typewriters anyone?) with auto-tuned theremin and old-school style game music melody lines. But either way, you do have to admit that it’s fascinating, fresh, and always perfect.

So, when I received an email from Martin a few months ago talking about a new project he was starting up with a few fellow musicians, alternative instrument devotees and electronic instrument geeks, I could hardly contain my excitement. Actually, to be honest, I did not contain my excitement at all. Not even a little. I just danced it out for a while and then played back through my entire Detektivbyrån collection to prepare myself.

His new project is called Wintergatan and they have just released their first full-length album, full of accordion, scissor snaps, dreamy waltzes, magical synth melodies, and a lot of new sounds as well. Four space-suited musicians choreograph pieces with more instruments than you can imagine, creating both an aural masterpiece and a visually fascinating performance.

WintergatanPerformanceThe album is nine tracks long, all available to stream for free on their media page, and a truly rewarding listen. If you know Martin’s previous work, you will definitely hear a lot of familiar sounds. There are the waltzes, the accordion hum, and the theremin, but there are a lot of new things as well. Tracks like “All is Well” bring in a much more dance sound, albeit played out primarily on bells, and “Västenberg” features a harp melody and much more dreamy, atmospheric opening than I have heard before, though it leads straight into a driving accordion and vibes section, reminiscent of “Honky tonk of Wermland” from Detektivbyrån’s Wermland album. However, the most surprising track is the last, a 14 minute long kaleidoscopic piece called “Paradis.” It ends the album on a perfect note, and marks a clear contrast from Martin’s previous work with Detektivbyrån. Hammered dulcimer and harp weave together into a unique mix over a synthesized bass as the originally pentatonic melody morphs into a full, complex mix of sounds – piano, synths, dulcimer, drum kit, and so much more. It’s more aurally complex, more mature, and even more delightful.

As you can probably tell by this point, this album is not really like anything else. Though I compare it a bit to Detektivbyrån, in truth, I only do that because it’s the closest relative I can find. If you are looking for something approachable on the surface, but complex enough to listen to again and again, this is it. The instrument combinations alone can keep a person occupied for days. But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at these two music videos they have posted. You’ll even get small behind the scenes peaks at their instruments and recording techniques at the end of each.

Sommarfaågel:

Starmachine 2000:

And if you haven’t yet, head over to their website where you can stream the entire album and let Wintergatan take you for the space ride of your life.

This is Independent, 2013

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Independents’ Day 2013, rain delay at Pearl and Broad

I’ve often written in the past about how my particular hometown of Columbus, Ohio is fiercely supportive of our local musicians (even sometimes to our detriment, if I’m being brutally honest). You may even recall a post from a few years titled something like “Columbus Loves Independent Musicians (and I’ve got the scars to prove it)” in which I covered a couple of local music festivals including Independents’ Day. I don’t believe I’ve covered Independents’ Day since that initial post, but I’ve continued to attend every year and this year saw the festival expand to three days (at least in theory, a rain delay led to the cancellation of most of Day One).

I’m not going to try to cover everything I saw at Independents’ Day this year. I saw 20 bands in twelve hours and no one wants to read about all of them. Nor do I want to write about all of them. But a few did leave their mark on me.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Nervosas at Independents’ Day 2013

I think among those few, the one that most surprised me is Nervosas. It’s not that I expect anything more than a top notch performance from Nervosas every time out, especially given the veteran musicians involved in the band. I’ve been following Nervosas from the beginning. In fact, if you follow our YouTube channel, you may even remember this video I shot at Bernie’s way back in 2011 when Nervosas were Witches of Kelso, the night they bolted immediately following their set opening for Wavves to play a show with our old friends The Cell Phones. No, I expect nothing less than the best from Nervosas every time out. What gets me is that they constantly exceed my expectations. They just seem to get better every time I see them. Every set is tighter than the last one and Independents’ Day 2013 was the best I’ve seen. They have been touring around this part of the country a fair bit lately, and if they continue to improve at this rate, who knows if they’ll even be available to play this fest next September.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Cliffs at Independents’ Day 2013

Speaking of improvements, as I left Nervosas, I turned the corner at Gay St. to catch what was left of Cliffs‘ set. I’ll be honest, it took me a while to come around to Cliffs. Mostly, because I’ve known the band members since they were in middle school and I don’t want to look like I’m showing favoritism, but also because I wasn’t blown away by the early demos they sent me. But I eventually caught up with the rest of Columbus about a year ago when Cliffs played an opening slot for Chicago garage punk juggernaut White Mystery. But Independents’ Day 2013 was the first chance I had to see the band play in front of an audience of any significant size. I have to hand it to them, these guys know how to have a good time with their audience. And I must commend drummer Adam Hardy for playing this show with a broken hip. I swear, I never would have known. Word from the band is, the test pressings for their first LP have come back and everything sounds great. Look for that to be out some time around November.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Connections at Independents’ Day 2013

And while we’re on the subject of getting caught up with everyone else, I should say, even I am surprised that it took me as long as it did to see Connections. Granted, I actually saw Connections for the first time a few days before this show, but for all intents and purposes this week has been my first Connections experience, despite the fact that the band (featuring former members of past Columbus bands, including the late great Times New Viking) have been making waves around town for about a year. And here is why I love events like Independents’ Day. Yeah, going to shows in clubs is fun and intimate (at least when you go to the kinds of shows I do) but in a festival setting you really get a chance to see how the concert going public really reacts to them. Not everyone goes to every Connections show, but every Connections fan goes to Independents’ Day. I even paparazzied Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman at the Connections show. I guess even politicians like good solid indie rock.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Lydia Loveless at Independents’ Day 2013

One final thing that’s long overdue, and those of you who remember that first Independents’ Day post from a few years ago may know where I’m going with this. Way back in 2010, I wrote about how I’d heard countless good things about Lydia Loveless, but just barely missed her Independents’ Day set. (Lydia even emailed me later to assure me that satisfaction was guaranteed.) No worries, I did finally see Lydia perform not long after that near miss, and several times since then (some of you may even remember a photo set from a couple of Record Store Days ago). But I finally made up for missing her 2010 set this year, planting myself front and center this year for a set consisting almost entirely of new material. Which has left me very excited for her pending releases.

In my mind, Lydia has long since taken her place in my mind as the best act in Columbus. And I’m only slightly saddened by the fact that her contract with Bloodshot Records takes her away from us and out on the road as often as it does. Though, I must say, I do enjoy the messages I receive from friends around the country after Lydia plays their hometown, telling me how lucky I am to live in Columbus. I didn’t always agree with that sentiment, but I’m starting to come around to that idea, too.

 

Good thing I like cats, then

The Happy Maladies

I don’t know how many of you listened to my occasional bits Bethan Elfyn’s Amazing Radio show last year, but those of you who did may recall the one and only time I featured two tracks by the same band, The Happy Maladies. Now, I’ve featured the Happy Maladies here before, several years ago, after seeing them at a house show here in Columbus. The band reinvented themselves since then, the lineup has changed, and they’ve re-emerged with all new material that focuses much more on jazz harmonies and contemporary chamber music through a filter of traditionally folk instruments.

I know that sounds like a far cry from the progressive bluegrass description I saddled them with way back in the early days. And, to an extent, it is. But you can’t pin these guys down and hold them to one genre. They’re in a constant state of evolution (like all the great bands are) and are some of the most adventurous musicians I know. To that end, they have launched a call for compositions under the moniker Must Love Cats.

To put it simply, the band are looking for composers to write something for them. In the end, five compositions will be selected to be recorded, receive their premiere in Cincinnati, and then toured. (And, yes, the winning composers will receive a share of the profits.) Further details (including instrumentation options) can be found on the Happy Maladies’ website, but I will say, it looks like a very exciting competition. It’s too bad I was never much of a composer, because, I’ll tell you, these guys can read! And they want to be challenged. And what composer doesn’t love that in a musician? If you’re a composer and you’ve ever wanted to try some crazy stuff with folk instruments, this is a golden opportunity. The deadline is January 1, 2014.

So, while I may not be a composer, you can bet I’ll be at the premiere next spring.

Here’s the band to tell you more.

P.S. Let me know if any of you guys enter.

Loops and Variations

lesley_flanigan_white2bFinally. I’m finally going to see Lesley Flanigan perform. I’m headed to Chicago next week to see her perform as part of the Loops and Variations series at Millennium Park on a bill that also includes champions of modern music eighth blackbird (did I ever tell you about the time I saw them play Philip Glass with Philip Glass?) and Wilco drummer (and Delta faucet virtuoso) Glenn Kotche.

It’s not really clear what the program will consist of, but I have to assume, where there’s eighth blackbird, there’s a world premiere. And that’s great. But for me, the real excitement lies in finally seeing Lesley Flanigan perform her feedback compositions live. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while: not a life long dream by any stretch, but certainly something I’ve been trying to arrange ever since I interviewed her a couple of years ago.

In case you weren’t with us then, here’s a link to the article and the interview. It’s still one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with a musician. And, in case you need a refresher, here’s a video of a performance of my favorite track from her album Amplifications. Of course, if you’re in Chicago on the 28th, you should definitely come down Millennium Park at 6:30 and catch the FREE show. But Columbus folks will also have a chance to see Lesley in person come March 2014.

From the Stacks: Jan Bradley – “The Brush Off”

I love the dusty shelves of forgotten books you find in the darkest corners of musty libraries and those crates of “worthless” old 45s you find in every junk shop. I can’t help it. There must be dust in my blood. I even worked in a music archive for a year after university (it’s still the best job I’ve ever had). I guess that makes me some kind of amateur cultural archaeologist.

Of course, you and I know those neglected 45s are far from worthless. There are so many great songs languishing in those cardboard dumping grounds. And sometimes, of course, I’ll find something that I really wish I could share with people only to discover that even the seemingly infinite YouTubes occasionally come up short. So, I’ve taken it upon myself recently to fill some of those gaps. And since, these are obviously the sorts of things I wish other people could hear, I’m going to start posting about them here from time to time—one of those times being right now.

Given that her early records were released on Chess, it’s surprising to me that Jan Bradley’s recordings are so difficult to find online. YouTube only has a few of them (Spotify only turned up one). As the story goes (read: according to Wikipedia) Bradley was discovered at a high school talent show. A while later, after auditioning for Curtis Mayfield, she would go on to have a regional hit with “We Girls” and nationally with “Mama Didn’t Lie” (both written by Mayfield).

The current track “The Brush Off”, appeared on the flip side of “I’m Over You”, a minor hit (#25 on the R&B chart) from early 1965. Both feature that unmistakable Chicago soul sound, and though there are a couple of videos floating around for “I’m Over You”, I was unable to find anything for “The Brush Off”, which is a shame, because it’s a smooth and easy bit of Northern Soul that deserves to be heard. So, I made one.

Here it is. And, apparently, Ms. Bradley (I don’t know her married name) still lives somewhere in the South Suburbs. So, if you happen to encounter her singing with her church choir, please, pass on to her my sincerest appreciation for her all-too-brief career.

(Here’s the Billboard review of the single from January 2, 1965. Also, this guy has some good info on Jan Bradley.)

The Long Silence

Hi. I realize things have been quiet here recently. I know this is my blog and I can come and go as I please, but I do feel I owe you an explanation. The fact is, a few months ago (on my birthday, actually, because that’s how much the universe loves me…) a member of my immediate family was diagnosed with a serious illness. Now, before you freak out (not that I expect you to) let me say that, according to the doctors, we are through the worst of it and well on the way to recovery.

That’s the good news. But, as you’d probably expect (and, as no doubt, some of you know from experience), news like that does give you pause. And you’re forced to reevaluate a lot of things. Things were pretty touch and go (often downright terrifying) for a while. The last few months have consisted of a lot of family time and not much else, because, when you’re forced to confront reality, you realize, not much else matters.

But, like I said, things are on the upswing. We’re not completely out of the woods yet (but then, when are we ever?). So, I’ll be working to ease my way back into this blog over the next few months. Though, it could take some time to get back into the swing of things. I hope you’ll bear with me. I will say, I’m pleased to see that site views haven’t really dropped off even though things have been quiet here. It makes me feel like we really have accomplished something good here in the last few years.

Thanks for your patience.

-Eric

P.S. Of course, if you’d like to help lighten the load, I am, as always, happy to accept guest posts. Email the.indie.handbook@gmail.com. Just, please don’t ask me if you can write a post to plug your own band. I think most of us would agree that that’s a little tacky. But then, if you’d like to address some sort of philosophical issue and use your own experience as a reference point, well, I’m all for that.

A Tribute to Paul Motian with Bill Frisell

Paul Motian
Paul Motian

March 25th will mark what would have been the 82nd birthday of legendary jazz drummer and composer Paul Motian. The same weekend, on the 22nd, a tribute concert curated by longtime collaborators and members of the Paul Motian Trio—Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano—and featuring more than 20 artists who worked with Paul over the years, will take place at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space in New York. I caught up with Frisell last week to chat briefly about his years playing with Paul and the experience of curating a tribute to a jazz icon. Some excerpts from the interview are included below.

There is, I think, a heightened self-awareness that is integral to jazz. Its future is almost dependent on familiarity and continual interaction with its past—legends, techniques, and sacred texts passed down from one generation to another in the grooves of dusty old records, over whiskey in smokey clubs, on a shared piano bench in downtown apartments. The same stories told night after night, but never the same way twice—it’s that sense of here and now and never again that is, arguably, the lifeblood of the great American art form.

Paul Motian was already an influential figure in the world of jazz by the time of his first meeting with the young Bill Frisell in January of 1981. As one third of the classic Bill Evans trio and after more than a dozen albums with Keith Jarrett, Motian’s influence on contemporary drumming was already undeniable. Still early on in his career, I ask him what those early sessions were like. It’s a meeting Frisell still recalls with fondness and even a touch of disbelief:

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell

“Well, the very first time I went to play with him was in 1981…and you know, I’d never met him….So, I go over there and it’s me and Paul and Marc Johnson was there…(Marc was the last bass player to play with Bill Evans)…[and] Bill had just passed away recently, so they were talking about that….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.”

“It was another one of these kind of heavy moments…playing that tune with those guys. And playing electric guitar? How am I fitting in with this, you 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.”

From those early sessions, with the addition of saxman Joe Lovano, emerged the Paul Motian Trio who would spend more than a quarter century pushing the limits of the jazz trio and, true to form, of time itself as Motian turned his attention to his own compositions. Even as each pursued their own projects, playing with other bands and each new generation, the Trio continued to perform together, including annual residencies at the Village Vanguard, for the better part of three decades, more often than not with little to no rehearsal.

“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…Every note he played was searching for something just beyond the horizon,” Bill recalls of their performances. “[It was] always just right on the edge of not knowing whether we were going to make it or not. But I think…if we had just gone through the same thing every time we played, it would never have lasted that long.”

Their annual runs at the Vanguard continued until Paul’s death in November of 2011.

“When he first passed away,…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….[A] couple of months after he passed away, there was a little gathering at the Village Vanguard….[That] was the first time…Joe and I played just duo. We played his tunes there and it was just such a relief in a way…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 now, as we approach what would have been Paul’s 82nd birthday, the handover continues. In the end, Paul’s tunes, too, will enter the canon, to be passed to the next generation along with those of Monk and Evans and all the great legends of whose works he once sang from behind the drums.

Possimiste – the first single from Field Guide Records (i.e. my label)

Possimiste sleeve coverA couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I am starting a record label (don’t believe me?–scroll down). Well, the test pressings are approved. The book has been designed and is ready to go to the printer. (I will be hand-stitching these books myself because, obviously, I don’t have enough to do–and also because I like the idea of hand-stitching more than boring old stapling.) And, in case you don’t follow @TheIndieHandbk on Twitter or you missed my flurry of tweets about it amid all the virtual celebration on New Year’s Eve, you should also know that we have begun taking pre-orders for the first 7″.

But I’ll be honest, I feel a little weird doing a huge promotional push for my own label (Field Guide Records) on my own blog. So, instead, let’s just rehash the primary details here. It’s a 7″ (read-along storybook style) featuring a new song and companion fairy tale by Possimiste, an exciting singer/composer from Estonia (read more about her in this post), with a full-color storybook, also illustrated by Possimiste to coincide with the styling of the video, which I’ve posted below. And I’m really excited about it. I honestly think she’s done an incredible job on this–even better than I’d hoped she would when I first approached her with the idea back in June. And it’s worth noting that the single was mastered by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Feist, Nico Muhly) at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik. Seriously, I never really understood why everyone insisted that these things must be mastered until I received those first preview samples. It’s like magic, you guys. I thought it was perfect when I sent it in. Now, it’s perfecter (and, yes, I have to use that word–it’s the only one that works here).

So, here’s the video “Wanderer” by Possimiste, produced by Unholy Flying Rabbit Pictures. I think you’re gonna like it.

You can pre-order the 7″ + book package here. (There are only 250 of them.)

You can buy the digital version on Bandcamp now.

The Big Announcement

It’s true that I haven’t been around and posting as much as I’d like to in recent months. I’m pretty sure I said in one of the few posts I have managed to put up that I have a good reason for this. And I do. It’s not so much that I haven’t wanted to post or haven’t had anything to post about. But my mind has, admittedly, been elsewhere.

You see, since June, I’ve been working on setting up a record label. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to start a record label, especially by yourself, but it sort of takes over your life. It’s one thing to threaten to start a label—something I’ve done periodically over the last few years—but actually doing it is quite the undertaking, especially if you’re the sort of person, like I am, whose mind tends to run off in about 15 different directions when it ought to be trying to figure out how to register a trademark.

Now, this may not come as a surprise to many of you since I have, several times, alluded to it in not-so-subtle terms on Twitter. But the next part is news.

The first 7” is on its way. The test pressings are due any day now. Once I’ve heard those, I’ll be able to be more specific about a release date, but for now, we’re aiming for some time in January. But now, I suppose you’ll also want to know what that 7” is going to be.

Do you remember Possimiste, the absurdly talented 19-year-old Estonian folk pop composer I wrote about back in April? We’ve spent the last several months working on a little EP for you. And not just any EP, a storybook EP! You read that right. Some of you who are children of the ’80s will remember these. Not only will it include the newest single by Possimiste, but a new fairy tale, written and recorded (with musical accompaniment, of course!) to complement the new song, all packaged inside a companion picture book!

It’s been a long, exciting (and sometimes terrifying) road getting to this point, but I’m so excited for you to hear the final product. I’ve listened to the song at least 200 times by this point, and I still love every second of it. I hope you will, too. And, at the risk of building your expectations too much, I’ll also mention one last thing. The single was (masterfully) mastered by producer/engineer/composer Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Nico Muhly) at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik. Yeah, that’s right, Valgeir Sigurðsson.

So, people, get ready, there’s a label comin’. (And some additional details, as they become available…)

For now, here’s an old Possimiste song.