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.

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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.

Pick Yourself Up with Anita O’Day or: Look at this Cool Thing I Found!

And now for something completely different. Since this blog started (nearly three years ago now) we have, with very few exceptions, concentrated on artists, recordings, and similarly musicky things that were, at the very least, newish. But today, I’m changing gears, not just because I can, but for the sheer subjective awesomeness of the subject matter (which is just another way of saying “because I want to”).

Like any sane person, I’ve been reasonably obsessed with Anita O’Day from the moment I saw this video. She is, for my money, one of the most incredible artists who has ever taken the stage. I’d like to say that I would pursue her recordings to the ends of the Earth, but actually, I’ve never had to travel farther than Springfield, OH (about 45 minutes west of here). This one came from eBay.

I won’t bog you down with too many details. I’m wordy enough as it is, don’t ask me to provide even a brief history of her 70-year career. Anita’s autobiography High Times, Hard Times and the brilliant documentary Anita O’Day: Life of a Jazz Singer do her far more justice than I can in 500 words. But a few details about the record might help to explain why I’ve decided to give it a post of it’s own.

This is a test pressing of a 78 rpm single from the Verve Records 2000 series (specifically V-2000), not to be confused with the other Verve 2000 series also begun in 1956, which were 33 1/3 LPs. (There is some correlation, however. For instance, MGV-2000 is also an Anita O’Day record, This is Anita, though the tracks from the V-2000 release—“I’m With You” and “Rock and Roll Waltz— do not appear on it, or indeed any of Anita’s other early Verve LPs. In fact, these numbers don’t resurface until 1992, as bonus tracks with the CD reissue of Pick Yourself Up with Anita O’Day.)

I’m perfectly willing to admit that V-2000 is not Anita at her best. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fine, really. But it’s certainly more pop oriented than her trademark hard-swinging scat recordings from the Verve LPs. Still, it’s a special piece, both for its historical significance, and simply as a curiosity. Though I can’t be sure where exactly it falls in the Verve Records chronology—good, detailed historical information about the Verve catalogue (not to mention the label itself) is shamefully hard to come by—this is very early.

Furthermore, Verve founder Norman Granz was particularly partial to jam sessions and the energy of live performance and quickly came to eschew the severe time restrictions of the 78 in favor of the relative freedom of 33 1/3 rpm long-players. Still, the early Verve catalogue did feature some 78s (as best I can tell, the 1000 and 2000 series) including this one. And so, since I could find no videos on YouTube of either of these recordings, I meandered down to my favourite local record shop, Spoonful Records, and borrowed their 78 rpm turntable to make a couple of my own.

So, here we go, quite possibly the first time in 55 years, have a listen to the test pressing of Anita O’Day performing “I’m With You” and “Rock and Roll Waltz”, orchestra arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman (V-2000).

(Incidentally, if you know of a good book about Verve Records, I’d love to read it. I know an extensive biography of Norman Granz came out earlier this year, but I can find nothing about the label itself.)

In A Cabin With…We’ll Make It Right

Those of you who kept up with The Indie Handbook during Dutch Week may remember my post about the IN A CABIN WITH international recording project.  If you don’t remember, well, here it is again. And of course you can find a more official description on the IN A CABIN WITH official website.

And now that you’re up to speed on the project, a new album was recorded in January and just released!  I downloaded it today (because there’s a free download available!) and have been simultaneously listening and reading the collaboration’s blog.  This particular project’s name is We’ll Make It Right and is made up of several Dutch musicians I’ve never heard of (because let’s be honest, the Dutch musicians I know are mostly the ones we covered during Dutch Week).  The instrumentation, as described on the blog, is “amongst arp, vibes, piano, banjo, and flute the strange duck in the bite!”  I’m not sure what it means to be the strange duck in the bite, but I’m pretty sure by listening that it’s a good thing.  On a whole, the collaboration is quite fantastic.

Within the first five seconds of the first track, “Stop Trying So Hard,” I couldn’t help thinking of Sondre Lerche, along the lines of “Everyone’s Rooting Just For You”.  Dominant chords and flute motifs bring a definite jazz feel to this track as well as to others, the most notable being the sassy “Just Like A Man.”  If I could swing dance, I would.  Eric can.   Songs like “It Ain’t All Good, “For The Sleeping,” and “We’ll Make  It Bright” are incredibly lovely and sad, and the end of “For The Sleeping” is especially ethereal.  If any of you care about my own personal favorite track (I know, I’m shameless), I think for now it is “Some Day,” which is one of the most playful and moving (literally, not emotionally) songs on the album; however, as with most truly great albums, my favorite is likely to change with more listens.

Reading the blog alongside of listening has added, I think, a new dimension to my comprehending the collaboration as a whole.  This makes sense, as a person’s understanding of an artwork can only increase with their understanding of the artist and the environment under which the art was created.  Can you appreciate Shostakovich without a cognizant acknowledgement of his life in Soviet Russia?  Sure.  But this acknowledgement will take you much deeper into his music than a surface-level listen or chord analysis.  So, I’d like to share a few thoughts I have upon reading the IN A CABIN WITH We’ll Make It Right blog.

The bloggers in the band not only sleep in one hotel room, but “we all sleep in 1 big 8-person bed, and DJ Extraa talks in his sleep. He shouted: ‘Which asshole does this!’. Later on he murmered: ‘Slackers.'”  This is so funny and so imaginably difficult at the same time!  It puts a whole new spin on the second track, “My Best Friend”– “when you bother me/i’ll bother you/and we’ll both know/i wanna make you my best friend.”  They describe their overall feeling as “one of intense, vulnerable sweet people spending day and night in a chalet.  We show each other movies, play each other songs we’ve made or songs by others, have dinner together, sleep together…Definitely not rock’n’roll!”  I don’t know, I guess they’re right.  Maybe it isn’t particularly rock’n’roll.  Later they admit they’ve pretty much lost touch with reality.  That’s natural, I guess!  But don’t you freaking love it?  It’s so artistic and wonderful, and the effect it has on their music is inimitable.  “Sweet with balls,” they call it.  Brilliant.

My favorite is their second-to-last blog post; the implications of this excerpt are fascinating:

“Each person in the band contributed several scetches for a song. And we wanted everybody to at least make 1 song out 1 of their scetches, and we’ve acheived that. So everyone ‘s got his “own” song now, except for Extraa. We will do his tomorrow.”

I think the reason this interests me so much is that despite everyone having their own song, and despite an earlier post saying the only music they all liked was Phoenix’s, all the songs on the album flow beautifully.  There is a definite and distinct sound to this collaboration, which can only come, I suppose, from spending every waking hour together in a tiny hotel room, and perhaps drinking lots of whiskey, and pushing through all those annoying idiosyncrasies that literally every person has, and knowing in the end, you have to produce, and whatever you produce has to be beautiful and it has to be art.

And it is beautiful, and it is art.  So I would say that In A Cabin With We’ll Make It Right is an enormous success.

I can’t embed it, so watch this video.


Decent People Know When to Stop

Like I needed one more excuse to go to California, now I have Alex & Sam.  Although their names are both oddly asexual, they are a boy and a girl and they are cute.  They went to Berklee, which is awesome, and probably why they are so talented.  They are unsigned, and I don’t know why.  Probably because no one is good enough to sign them.

Alex’s voice gives me flashbacks to Elliott Smith, and maybe the style could be compared to Smith’s “Say Yes” or “Whatever” with its soft acoustics, but Sam’s voice is more along the lines of jazz; you can imagine the combination–down-to-earth folk sophistication.  If they were going for creating their own unique sound (or, as the L.A. Times suggests, their own genre)…well, they’ve succeeded.  Not only are they the definition of lovely in every breath and strum, but their lyrics are wonderfully honest and hopeful.

“Sounds Like This” is Alex & Sam’s EP, most of which you can hear on their myspace.  I really enjoy the feel of the strings and the trumpet on “Laura,” the precious lyrics on “Old Man in Me,” the lovely, floating melody of “Buy Your Side,” and Sam’s vocals + muted trumpet on “See You Through,” but really, there isn’t one track you won’t love.

And you probably forgot what summer sounds like. Good thing Alex & Sam are here to remind you. Have a listen.

Jaymay…did I hear her first?

Yes, I did hear her first.  I heard her before Starbucks put her on one of their mixes.  Reasons I am reviewing her now:

1) Dutch week starts in 45 minutes (eastern time), that is if Eric is still going for it, and she is not Dutch, soooo…
2) If I don’t hurry up, they will not only be playing her in Starbucks, but they will also be playing her in Gap (I heard “Asleep on a Sunbeam” by Belle & Sebastian in there a couple of months ago, p.s.), and then she will lose her indie cred completely.  But I like her.  So there.

When asked what he would choose to eat if he could pick his last meal, famous chef, food writer, and world traveler Anthony Bourdain said that he would want comfort food…maybe meatballs.  And comfort food is what Jaymay is to the indie/folk music scene.  While lacking the depth of musical theory knowledge, elaborate instrumental combinations, and massive numbers about which bands like the Polyphonic Spree and Pink Martini can boast, Jaymay gives musically and lyrically pure, laid-back, melancholic, driving-in-the-rain perfection.

Although she’s originally from New York, Autumn Fallin’, Jaymay’s first complete album, came out in November 2007 in London on the Heavenly/EMI label.  “Sea Green, See Blue” has been featured in the embarrassingly pathetic CBS television show “How I Met Your Mother” and on a recent Starbucks mix.  Oh, how ironic that Starbucks would be indie…

Back on track, Autumn Fallin’ provides a unique mix of jazz, folk, and acoustic influences.  “Hard to Say” has the most notable jazz influence with its swing rhythms and dominant chords–if only Jaymay wouldn’t save her improvised mouth trumpet scat for one track!  While not one of her songs isn’t absolutely beautiful–light and moving, with simple chord structures–her storytelling sets her apart.  Through each track’s narrative, she wears her heart on her sleeve, begging for personal connection.  And she gets that connection, as love for a friend (“Gray or Blue”), the impossibility of reconciling some situations (“Ill Willed Person”), and transitions and regrets (“Sea Green, See Blue”) are all situations not unfamiliar to us.  Not to mention that Jaymay has a sparkling and seductive voice, less bizarre than Jenny Lewis’ and less boring than Norah Jones’.

We’re all praying that this precious coffeehouse brunette can avoid selling out to Starbucks or crappy CBS television shows, but she seems to have enough Punky Brewster spunk to stick it out in the indie/folk scene.  Save Autumn Fallin’ for one of those days when you’re dying for some lovely introspectiveness.

she is so cute.

[happy Easter, by the way.]

More married bands

I’ve been finding so much amazing music coming out of Holland lately (who knew?) that I think I may unofficially declare next week “Dutch Week”. So, if Kristin is ok with it, we will have Dutch week in honor of bands like the Very Sexuals and NEONBELLE and this beautiful Dutch girl I used to know who won’t return my messages anymore.

Speaking of people who won’t acknowledge my existence, you ought to head over to MySpace and check out The McMakens, even though they have (apparently) failed to accept my offer of virtual friendship on multiple occasions. I’ve been a fan of the McMakens since before they were the McMakens. They really are a joy to see live (their rendition of “Wade in the Water” is a particular favorite of mine) and the chemistry between them is undeniable (which probably influenced their decision to get married). They have been at work on their first album as of late, which, I hear, is currently in the mixing stages. You can be sure we will have more on that as the project draws nearer completion.

For now, head over to their MySpace and check out the few tracks they have there. I am, and always have been, an adamant fan of “Prayer for Marriage”. Their mix of jazz, folk and blues (that really does sound like “a cup of tea, a warm fire, and a good book on a rainy day”) will appeal to fans Over the Rhine and maybe even a little of the Peekers.

And if you like what you hear, then head over to their official site, themcmakens.com for the blog and all sorts of other fun stuff, and catch them live with Sara Masterson at Cab’s in Glen Ellyn, IL on 23 April.

**EDIT** It appears that the McMakens have not received any of my friend requests. MySpace needs to get their act together.

Sara Masterson

Ok, I know I owe you all a real post very soon and I swear I have one written, but I’m just spazzy and busy and it’s taking me awhile.

But to tide you over, I’m at work and listening to Sara Masterson on myspace and loving iiiit.  She just released a new EP called Hale Street Sessions, and I’m telling you all that you need to check out her myspace and then buy her E.P.  She’s adorable, she’s coffeehouse, she’s acoustic/jazz, her voice is beautiful, and her lyrics are meaningful … so!… you have no reason not to love it.  Plus, for those of you in or near Chicago, she’s a local, so check out her show schedule.

http://www.myspace.com/saramasterson