Editor’s note: To celebrate the release of Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music– a new biography penned by author Philip Watson – the Fretboard Journal is sharing an entire chapter from the book. “The Rambler,” the book’s eighth chapter, covers Bill’s marriage to visual artist Carole d’Inverno, his move to New York City, and his early ECM recordings. It’s a fascinating glimpse into one of our favorite guitarist’s early days. To purchase the book, click here.
Carole d’Inverno is standing in front of a sheriff in the basement of a courthouse in Greenville, North Carolina. Beside her is Bill Frisell. Nearby are Bill’s parents and his brother, Bob. The room is bare, officious, municipal. An American flag stands in the corner. Carole is nervous, confused, and she can barely understand a word the sheriff is saying.
It is August 1979, she is twenty-three, and Carole is about to get married.
The sheriff tells her to repeat after him, to say exactly the words he says. Which she does. But not just the words. The accent too. The slow and strange vowel sounds. The elongated extra syllables. The drawl.
More than thirty-five years later, sitting in the living room of his home in Seattle, Frisell recreates something of the scene – in a knowing stage-Southern accent.
Ah, Carole . . .
Ah, Carole . . .
Take you, Willyam . . .
Take you, Willyam . . .
‘None of it was exactly romantic,’ Carole says. ‘A few days before, I had been just stomping around, and freaking out, and shouting, “I don’t want to get married!” In fact, because of things I’d seen in my family and how they could have gone a lot better, I’d always said I was never going to get married. But then Bill said, “That’s OK, this is America, we can always get divorced.” And I thought, “Oh, you’re right.” He knew me. He knew that I needed to have an escape door. Very smart man.’
Tu be mah lawahful husband . . .
Tu be mah . . .
Lawahful husband . . .
Law-ah-ful husband . . .
‘Greenville was where my parents had moved to while I was at Berklee,’ says Frisell. ‘The sheriff was this kind of big military-looking guy, with a cowboy hat and this real heavy Southern accent.’
From thees day foward . . .
From thees day . . .
Foward . . .
Foward . . .
‘And Carole at that time didn’t really speak English that well, and she’s scared, you know . . . we’ve gotta do this, or she’s going to get kicked out of the country . . . and the guy’s speaking English in a way she’s never heard before . . .’
Fowah richah, fowah poorah . . .
Fowah rich-ah . . .
Fowah poorah . . .
Fowah poor-ah . . .
In seekness and health . . .
In . . .
‘This Italian woman from Belgium was speaking like she’d been born in the Appalachians, or something,’ Frisell adds. ‘I was laughing, and she was hitting me . . . in front of the sheriff. But anyway, we made it through.’
Until dayath do us part . . .
Until day-ath . . .
Do us . . .
Do us . . .
Part . . .
Part . . .
When Bill and Carole had arrived at JFK in New York a month or so earlier, Carole was taken aside, interrogated and very nearly refused entry. At the last minute, she was granted a temporary six-week visa. The couple flew to North Carolina. Bill’s father had been appointed chair of the biochemistry department at the new East Carolina University Medical School in Greenville in 1976; he had also been made assistant dean of graduate affairs. A lawyer recommended Bill and Carole get married; it was the only way of guaranteeing that she could remain in the country.
‘Carole and I had started living together just a few months after we began seeing each other – in a tiny space above Chapati that was little bigger than a doorway,’ says Frisell. ‘But this was something else again. I think Carole was just in total serious shock.’ The couple bought a light blue 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and, while the marriage arrangements were being made, drove to Colorado. Bill wanted to show Carole where he grew up, and to introduce her to some of his friends.
In the autumn, soon after they got married, Bill and Carole then drove to Manhattan and tried to build a new life. They borrowed a friend’s place in TriBeCa for a month, a small apartment owned by vibes player Bill Molenhof in a desolate block near the World Trade Center and West Side Elevated Highway. They looked at accommodation in Brooklyn, but couldn’t find an affordable place with enough room for Bill to play and practice. Bill went back across the Hudson to New Jersey, to where his parents had moved at the end of the sixties, and to Hoboken, where his brother Bob had lived, but still he and Carole had no luck.
‘It just seemed like we were never going to find a place,’ says Bill. ‘I can remember sitting on this bench in Weehawken [New Jersey] with Carole, on the edge of the [Hudson] River, with that amazing view of
Manhattan all spread out in front of us . . . and just crying. I felt hopeless and completely defeated.’
The newlyweds eventually found an apartment in the solidly unfashionable New Jersey suburb of Guttenberg, just across the water from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was along this densely populated stretch of northern New Jersey that Bill and Carole were to live for the next ten years. From their place in Guttenberg, they moved in late 1980 even further away from Manhattan, to the first floor of a house in Fairview. ‘The house was owned by a super-racist prick asshole landlord,’ says Frisell. ‘Tiger Okoshi came to visit, and the guy saw him and told us he didn’t want people like that in his house. We moved out as fast as we could.’
The following year they rented a flat above a ‘particularly fragrant’ fishmonger’s in neighbouring Cliffside Park, and in 1985 the couple moved into an apartment in Hoboken – it was the largest of the four and even had two bedrooms, though it was on the fifth floor and a walkup.
‘These were neighbourhoods where you not only could actually find a parking space, but you also didn’t feel like you were going to be jumped at night and killed for something,’ says Carole. ‘Bill couldn’t deal with the threat of violence – it would freak him out – and in Jersey he didn’t have to worry too much about walking down the street with his guitar and amp, or being constantly afraid of having his equipment stolen. Which, in other areas of New York at that time, was normal.’
In many ways Frisell was right to be nervous. In just a few decades New York had fallen from its primary position as E. B. White’s ‘capital of the world’ to being dubbed ‘Fear City’. Crime rates were high, as were incidences of poverty, heroin addiction, muggings, homelessness, abandoned buildings, arson and looting. Just a few years before, the city had almost gone bankrupt; budget cuts had led to a lack of public services, a significantly reduced police force, and lawlessness. In 1980 there were 1,814 murders in the city (in 2019 the figure was eighty-two per cent lower at 319). Many parts of the subway were considered unsafe, especially at night. Central Park was effectively a no-go area. Times Square was largely home to sex shops, prostitutes, hustlers, drug dealers, hardened criminals, vagrants, pickpockets and the mentally unstable.
‘Not that Hoboken was very different when we lived there in the eighties, but for some reason Bill thought it was,’ adds Carole. ‘It was actually trashed-out – half of the city had either been burnt down or abandoned. It was pretty grim.’
It was hard for the Frisells to tell some of the more hardened New York musicians they knew or were to meet, especially those living in lofts, warehouses and squats on the Lower East Side, where they lived. Like, not even in Brooklyn. Like, not actually in New York City. ‘Oh my God, if somebody asked for our phone number, and you gave them a number starting with 201 [the area code for New Jersey], they would be like, “Oh, you’re the most uncool human beings on the planet!”’ says Carole, laughing. ‘But, you know, that’s just New York bullshit.’
In fact, the year after the Frisells moved to Hoboken in early 1985, Joey Baron and his then wife Leslie Kamen were to relocate to exactly the same building. In spring 1987 close musical and personal friends Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb followed. At one stage the three couples lived just a few floors apart.
Carole got work in a local kosher food factory making sausages at $2.70 an hour. Over the following years Carole found jobs in a paint factory and dry-cleaning store, and as a home-care nurse and bookkeeper. Through a contact of drummer David ‘D.’ Sharpe, Frisell worked briefly for an agency that mostly employed musicians – to clean stores and factories at night.
‘None of that was a big deal, because we were young, and what the hell did we care?’ says Carole. ‘It wasn’t like I was enjoying it, but it was just like, whatever – you work hard and you just buckle down and do what you’ve got to do.’
Frisell self-produced posters advertising his guitar-teaching services, which he put up on poles around Guttenberg. The response was close to zero. ‘He’d illustrated it with one of his crazy drawings, some kind of weird-ass alien,’ says Carole. ‘I remember looking at it and thinking, hmm, that’s not going to attract too many people!’
Serious professional gigs were hard to come by, and it did not help that Bill knew so few musicians in New York. Mostly Frisell played ‘GB gigs’ – ‘general business’ jobs such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and other private and corporate events. The sort of shows he was playing five years before in Boston. It must have felt at times like he was back at square one – except that the square was much larger and more intimidating.
There was worse: a stint in an Elvis covers band; and a regular Saturday night gig at a venue near LaGuardia Airport in Queens, playing pop music, five sets a night, with a group and singer. ‘It would take him until Tuesday to get over it, because he was so depressed,’ says Carole. ‘And then by Thursday he would get into a depression again, because he had to go back to LaGuardia and play the next Saturday gig.’
During these early years in New Jersey and New York, the country was in a deep recession, the city unemployment rate hovered around nine per cent, and inflation peaked in 1980 at eighteen per cent. Bill and Carole worked odd jobs and struggled to get by. Their combined income for their first three years in America – most of it, Frisell readily acknowledges, earned by Carole – averaged less than $9,000 a year.
‘It was hard for us, and tough to witness such visible hardship on the streets, and a couple of times I was ready to go back,’ says Carole. ‘But we had no money for the plane tickets!’
Things did, however, begin to look up. Through musicians Frisell had met in Boston, he started to get invited to private jam sessions and proper gigs. During 1980 he played in New York and Boston in a group led by English flautist and composer Nick Pike, whom Bill knew from Berklee; the band was rather fantastically called Flute Juice. The quartet included bassist Tim Landers and drummer Mike Clark, who had been a vital member of both Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and British jazz-prog rockers Brand X.
Frisell reconnected with Mike Gibbs, who was still teaching at Berklee but mostly living in New York and maintaining a stellar big band that would sometimes play at a club in the West Village called Seventh Avenue South. The drummer in the band was Bob Moses, whom Bill knew from his playing on records made by Gary Burton’s late-sixties quartet, and from that first Pat Metheny gig he had attended in 1975.
Moses was another of Frisell’s great role models – and subsequent supporters. Bob was excited by Bill’s playing in the Gibbs orchestra. ‘I can remember Moses checking me out and he was really flipped out when he heard me, like he’d never heard the guitar sound like that, or something,’ says Frisell. ‘He was like, “Wow, what is that sound? I thought there was a French horn in the band!”’
Playing Gibbs’s clever compositions and sympathetic arrangements made Frisell appreciate just how much his multiple musical experiences had benefited him: ‘It was all those years playing clarinet – in a woodwind quintet and really learning to listen, or in a full orchestra and feeling the acoustic phenomenon of instruments vibrating together, or in a marching band, where everybody’s together, in the rhythm of the thing.
‘And it was all the dynamic and harmonic guitar techniques I’d learned from Jim Hall, and then maybe adding some more modern effects. Or how you could play an electric instrument like the guitar, and really use it to open up the sound and find ways of letting all the music from my past come in, but also know how to make it blend with other instruments, which is just the most amazing feeling. I was playing the guitar using a sound you would get when it was really loud, but I could bring it back into the range of the natural dynamics of these acoustic instruments.
‘Getting the chance to play with those guys in the Mike Gibbs band . . . like, I was just ecstatic, out of my mind. So I didn’t want to just play electric guitar and play great, and just blast everybody away; I wasn’t trying to show ’em what I could do. I just wanted to play with them.’
Moses began to introduce Frisell to some of New York’s leading players, including avant-saxophonist Julius Hemphill, one of the co-founders (in St Louis, Missouri, in the late sixties) of the hugely influential multi-disciplinary Black Artists Group. In 1982 Frisell played on Bob Moses’s
When Elephants Dream of Music, an album co-produced by Pat Metheny that was one of Frisell’s first New York recordings. ‘Bob Moses was a massive turning point,’ Frisell has said. ‘He heard something, and gave me a chance. [Playing with Moses] I really felt like I could be myself.’
Sharpe was also important to Frisell in the early eighties. Bill had known him only slightly in Boston, but he was aware of his work with the Carla Bley Band, Laurie Anderson, and Jonathan Richman’s acoustic rock group the Modern Lovers. Bill went to see D. Sharpe play a date in New York; they started jamming and gigging together and quickly became close friends.
‘Yeah, right away we connected, and D. Sharpe had a huge impact on me – he had his own thing, real strong, one of a kind,’ says Frisell. ‘We even exchanged lessons. I would teach him harmony and theory, and he’d give me drum lessons, ultra-simple stuff. But it made me that much more aware of what was going on the next time I played with a drummer.’
Sharpe also began introducing Bill to New York musicians and recommending him for gigs. It was D. Sharpe who told Hal Willner about Bill, which led in 1981 to Frisell recording the solo ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ track for Willner, his first American session under his own name, and one of his big New York breaks.
Frisell even continued to play with Sharpe after the drummer moved back to Boston. Sharpe formed a band, comprised of Bill, and sometimes Wayne Krantz on second guitar, Gary Valente on trombone, and either Steve Swallow or John Lockwood on bass, which played every Wednesday at the 1369 Jazz Club. Frisell used to drive up – a round trip of eight hours.
‘The gig didn’t pay any money, like $20, but the music was real good,’ Frisell told interviewer Radhika Philip. ‘And then one week someone in New York asked me to do another gig, it paid more money, and I didn’t go up to Boston. And it was a drag; the music wasn’t good and I felt terrible. It was just a little lesson. I should have just gone to Boston and played for $20.’
Bill’s collaboration with D. Sharpe was to end a few years later, in January 1987, with the drummer’s death from AIDS-related complications.
He was just a few days short of his fortieth birthday. The following year Bill dedicated the final track, ‘Alien Prints’, on the debut album of the Bill Frisell Band, Lookout for Hope, to Sharpe.
Frisell’s connections led to other opportunities. After Mike Stern began playing with Miles Davis, following the trumpeter’s return in 1980, Mike and Leni moved to Manhattan, and Bill and Mike began gigging together at Seventh Avenue South, and at another legendary New York jazz venue called 55 Grand, in SoHo – where Leni and Mike lived above the club.
As well as meeting Pat Metheny at Berklee, Frisell also knew Metheny’s older brother, Mike, a fine flugelhorn and trumpet player who taught at the college from 1976–83. Mike had arranged to record his first album in a studio just north of Boston in February 1981 and asked Bill to take part; it was Frisell’s debut US recording. The album was called Blue Jay Sessions, and it’s a somewhat predictable and straight-ahead affair – although the leader displays a beautifully mellow and mellifluous tone on flugelhorn. It was also a far from ideal context for the nascent Frisell guitar sound and style. Here, he is fitting in, working to someone else’s agenda, and it shows: he sounds peculiarly restricted and restrained.
The opposite was true for some of the impromptu sessions Frisell attended in Manhattan. Through drummer Charles Telerant, whom Bill knew at Berklee, Frisell took part in a series of jam sessions in ‘dirt-cheap rehearsal spaces on the Lower East Side’ organised by vocalist and pianist Julian Summerhill during the hot New York summer of 1981. ‘We played completely free as an ensemble, inventing whole song structures together on the spot,’ Summerhill has written. ‘The only rule was that there were no rules, and even if there were, there was nobody about to enforce them.’
Summerhill recorded the improvised sessions live to stereo cassette, and in 2018 they were made available as a digital download on Bill Frisell’s website. The music is of dubious merit and sound quality, but it’s fascinating to hear Frisell given such a free rein. He employs a full range of avant-guitar screams, twangs, warps, loops, echoes and effects, and shows he has the chops to shred, skronk and fully rock out. Yet amid all the excess and experimentation, there is often an unmistakable Frisellian melodic line that lifts the sessions to another level.
Other private sessions led to more concrete opportunities. Through journalist and musician Chip Stern, who in July 1983 in Musician magazine would write the first major profile of Frisell, Bill was invited to play at Stern’s Upper West Side apartment. ‘He would have these kind of crazy jam sessions,’ says Frisell. ‘Chip would play drums, and sometimes it’d just be me and him, but often he’d call over some other people he knew.’
It was here that Frisell first played with multidirectional rock guitarist Robert Quine, who had worked with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, as well as Lou Reed and Brian Eno. The two became friends, Quine guiding Frisell to his first Fender Stratocaster, a reissue of a vintage 1957 model, and an effects pedal called the Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Digital Delay, one of the first devices to create digital loops, echoes, overdubs and changes in pitch and tempo. ‘That delay pedal was a major moment,’ says Frisell. ‘I took to it immediately, and it really opened up a whole new world for me. It was like I’d been waiting for something like that to come along.’
Frisell jammed with Stern and bassist Jerome Harris, whom he knew from Boston. Frisell loved Harris’s warm and fluid playing and in 1984 would ask him to play on Rambler, his second album as leader.
Stern invited Julius Hemphill to the sessions, and they too hit it off. Hemphill started calling Frisell for occasional gigs; in 1985, alongside fellow guitarist Nels Cline, Frisell was part of the Hemphill band that travelled to Europe for a five-week tour. ‘Julius was another massive inspiration to me – as a completely original thinker and composer, as someone who’d invented his own way of doing things,’ says Frisell.
There were an increasing number of regular gigs too. In 1982, through Mike Clark, the drummer with whom Frisell had played in Flute Juice, Bill joined an intrepid trio called Stone Tiger that also featured Clark’s bandmate in Brand X, Welsh bassist Percy Jones. A supremely versatile player, Jones had gigged and recorded with English experimental rockers Soft Machine, poetry-rock group the Liverpool Scene and on Brian Eno’s mid-seventies adventures in ambient music. Stone Tiger caused quite an impact playing venues such as Kenny’s Castaways, a mainly folk, rock, blues and punk club in Greenwich Village, and CBGB in the East Village, where Robert Quine had first made his name.
‘Bill went from being, like, nobody to somebody in New York almost in a flash,’ says Kermit Driscoll. ‘Everybody loved him, and everybody wanted him. Because he made them sound good. And then he made them sound even better. He was like the number-one sideman and accompanist, so good at listening and reacting. I don’t know how many times people told me, “When I play with Bill, different shit happens. And I play better!”’
Drummer and bandleader Chris Massey, who recruited Frisell for a studio recording in May 1981, agrees: ‘Bill was wildly creative, had a great sound, even then, and was great fun to be around. He’s an incredibly sweet person with an undeniable power underneath – kinda like a doughnut filled with Red Bull.’
It wasn’t only American musicians who were beginning to recognise and admire Frisell’s fresh approach to the guitar – his unique combination of sensitivity and strength, eclecticism and effects.
Doubtlessly inspired by the independent spirit of Paul Motian, in 1981 Frisell recorded four new songs he had written since returning to the US on a friend’s reel-to-reel four-track tape machine – solo, with some overdubbing; twenty minutes of original music on a cassette tape.
One of the compositions was the deceptively simple and gently captivating ballad ‘Throughout’, a tune that would become something of a Frisell favourite. The work has, over the years, also intrigued other composers, including Gavin Bryars, Carla Bley and Mike Gibbs, all of whom have written arrangements of the piece. Frisell gave the cassette to Bob Moses, D. Sharpe and Chip Stern in New York, and he sent copies to Eberhard Weber and Manfred Eicher in Germany. Weber was instantly inspired to rekindle the earlier rapport he had felt touring with Frisell in the Mike Gibbs ensemble. In 1981 Frisell returned to Europe to play two short duo tours with Weber.
‘Eberhard didn’t really have much of a plan, and I don’t remember anything being composed – it was totally improvised,’ says Frisell. ‘We would show up, mostly at these small clubs, and just play free.’
Weber remembers the tours as an unqualified success. ‘It was a different musical time and there was far more of this kind of improvisation than nowadays,’ he writes. ‘But Bill was able to enrich any section or space the music called for.’
At the end of the first tour, Weber sent The Frisell Tape to ECM labelmate Jan Garbarek, with whom he had been playing and recording. Garbarek had already worked with some of the pre-eminent guitarists of the era – Terje Rypdal, Ralph Towner, Bill Connors, Egberto Gismonti and John Abercrombie – but he was impressed. ‘I was immediately attracted to Bill’s playing, as I hadn’t heard a guitar sound like that,’ says Garbarek. ‘He was vastly different from any of the guitarists I’d played with before. I couldn’t even say, “Oh, he plays a little bit like so and so.” Or whoever. No! He played like Bill, and that was very interesting to me.’ Garbarek invited Frisell to record with him on his next ECM album, scheduled for the end of the year.
Eicher was similarly taken with the cassette and the ECM boss passed on The Frisell Tape to another trusted and longstanding musician on the label, Arild Andersen. The Norwegian bassist and composer had released five ECM albums as leader and was looking to put together a group for a one-off concert at the famous Molde Jazz Festival in Norway that August. Without Frisell even having spoken to Eicher, Andersen called Bill and offered him the gig; it was to be a quartet with English pianist John Taylor and American drummer Alphonse Mouzon.
‘I only knew Arild from listening to those early ECM albums, so getting that call was a big deal,’ says Frisell. ‘I was excited about the gig, and flattered to be asked, but at that stage I hadn’t even travelled that much, or played festivals, so I guess I was also a bit nervous.’
The event was recorded and released on ECM as A Molde Concert (in 2000 the album was reissued with twenty-six minutes of extra music, and tracks rearranged to ‘restore the original dramaturgy of the performance’). Both versions are equally hard to love. This is often suffocatingly tricksy and pyrotechnical music that was the polar opposite of the open, interactive and pared-down playing Frisell was experiencing at the time in rehearsal with Paul Motian. It’s only when you listen to what he does in the quieter passages, often behind Andersen and Taylor, that
Frisell really begins to breathe.
One remarkable thing did happen, however, on that visit to Norway.
‘The phone rings and Arild is talking to Manfred [Eicher], and Manfred asks how the rehearsal is going, and Arild says, “It’s going great.” And then he hands me the phone,’ says Frisell, taking a pause. ‘I hadn’t spoken to Manfred in almost three years. But he says, “I know you’re going to play with Paul [Motian], and record with Jan, so yes, I think . . . how would you like to do a solo record, something like the music on the tape?” And I was like, “Oh, man, this is insane!” Suddenly so many things were starting to happen – all at the same time.’
Two of those things were the Garbarek album Paths, Prints, recorded in December 1981 at the Talent Studio in Oslo, and Eberhard Weber’s next record, Later That Evening, recorded in March 1982 at the Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg. Both were, of course, produced by Manfred Eicher.
Paths, Prints is by far the more successful album and the first intimations that this quartet – Garbarek, Weber, Frisell and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen – would be one of the saxophonist’s great, if relatively short-lived, groups. Garbarek, like Paul Motian, is committed to clarity and space, to allowing the music to develop organically, in its own way; there is also a dramatic kind of coiled and controlled tension. Frisell is the ideal foil for Garbarek’s searching and skywards sounds on tenor and soprano, heightening the contrasts, enhancing the colours, emphasising the emotions.
‘I will always treasure that album – thanks to Bill, and the others,’ says Garbarek. ‘Whether the music was raunchy or rhythmic or floating or ballad-like, or whatever, Bill would always find the right tone, find his voice. He would come up with something surprising but just right, a response that might be oblique, askew or off-centre, but that was beautiful and perfectly suited the circumstances. He never ceased to amaze me.’
This string of albums for ECM continued to significantly raise Frisell’s profile on both sides of the Atlantic. With Paul Motian’s Psalm also being produced during this period, Frisell recorded four albums in Europe for the label in just seven months; all were released by Eicher in 1982.
‘It was only a few years earlier that I’d been sitting around in Greeley, Colorado, smoking pot with my friends, listening to some of those first seventies ECM records,’ says Frisell. ‘They made such an impact because, from the beginning, everything about ECM seemed different, better – the quality of the sound, the mysterious record covers, even the vinyl looked thicker. Manfred upped the standard.’
In August 1982 Frisell was to find out first-hand just how far Eicher was prepared to push his artists and maintain those personal standards. Back at the same Oslo recording studio, Talent, with the same engineer, Jan Erik Kongshaug, Frisell had been given two days to record his debut album, with one day to mix it.
This was the norm for the majority of jazz recordings. The most famous jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, was recorded over two separate dates in March and April 1959; John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme took just four momentous hours one evening in December 1964.
It was also standard for Eicher and ECM. The label boss and creative force may have been on a mission to record the music he loved, to the highest possible level, but he wasn’t about to compromise when it came to sparking spontaneity and creative tension. To achieve that, to slightly paraphrase Duke Ellington’s famous mantra, ‘they didn’t need time, they needed a deadline’. Inspiration through limitation. Two or three days max.
The challenges for Bill Frisell coming into such a scenario were manifold. Despite his recent run of recording work with others, he was still relatively inexperienced in the studio – and had never before played a complete set of music, solo, in public. In front of anybody. Let alone the head of the most prestigious and influential jazz label in Europe. And let alone for a high-profile first album, of his own compositions, under his own name. Even today it seems an extraordinary notion: that the debut album of an almost unknown American guitarist should be totally solo, performed fully alone.
On the first day, for the first takes, Frisell felt the recording went well. ‘I prepared the album, because, like, this is the biggest thing that ever happened in my life up to that point, and I had a whole bunch of stuff together that I wanted to do, such as using the studio to do overdubs,’ he says. ‘And I was really nervous, but I was working through the songs, and I almost couldn’t believe that I was doing it, recording my own album for ECM – I was just feeling ecstatic, like I was in heaven. I was thinking, “Wow, this is great, the songs sound incredible.” I had no inkling that anything was wrong.’
Towards the end of the day, as Frisell was recording the first of four parts for one of his compositions, an arrangement that involved Frisell playing both electric and acoustic guitars, Eicher stopped the session and told him to move on.
‘Manfred lost patience with the process and he just wanted me to play something that sounded freer,’ says Frisell. ‘I’ve thought about this a lot since, and I don’t think I was strong enough – to explain to him what I was doing, and to say, “Just hold your horses, let me finish what I’m doing, so you can hear how the whole thing’s going to turn out.”’
At breakfast the next morning, matters got a whole lot worse. Eicher told Frisell that they needed to talk, that he wasn’t happy with the session, that maybe Frisell wasn’t quite ready for the challenges of a solo recording.
‘He didn’t really like my acoustic guitar playing either,’ says Frisell. ‘He’d make reference to Ralph Towner and say, “You know, you’re not really an acoustic guitar player. Ralph really knows how to get a sound out of an acoustic guitar.” I didn’t play acoustic for a number of years after that.’
Eicher’s general advice to Frisell was to think of Keith Jarrett’s spontaneous solo piano performances, to just play free. ‘So I said, “Well, let me just try and do it”, but he’d scared the shit out of me. I was in shock. And then the doubt came in, and I didn’t really know what to do.’
Frisell suddenly felt very exposed and very alone. It was just him and his electric guitar reaching out over a widening abyss to Manfred and Jan Erik in the control booth beyond. ‘I just started flailing . . . I was trying to grasp at anything, to find something, and Manfred was in there, saying, “No, no, that’s not it.” Which didn’t exactly do much to build my confidence. I was in a panic, in deep trouble, and it wasn’t working at all. He wasn’t responding to anything, and the music kept going further and further down. That day just sort of unraveled. I don’t even mean to blame Manfred, but it was pretty ego-crushing, pretty devastating.’
At one stage Eicher called English saxophonist and clarinettist John Surman into the studio (Surman happened to be holidaying nearby). ‘I was a but unclear exactly what this was all connected to, but Manfred asked me to play over some of Bill’s improvisations,’ says Surman. ‘I think he had an idea that he was going to use the music in a play or theatre production.’ Matters were moving even further beyond Frisell’s control. By the end of the day, Eicher had another plan: he knew Frisell was about to go on a two-week tour of Norway in a duo with bassist Arild Andersen, so he suggested to Frisell that they resume the recording after that – with Andersen present.
‘I thought, “Well, that’s a great idea.” I mean, it was a way out. And Arild is this super-nice guy,’ says Frisell. ‘And then I was like, “Wait a minute, what have I got myself into?” I was sort of flipping out, because this wasn’t my vision for the album at all; in fact, it had nothing really to do with it.’
Carole says that Frisell has always been unwaveringly ambitious and single-minded about his music, but not always adept at addressing the inevitable conflicts that sometimes arise. ‘Oh, he’s lethal – just so determined and doggone stubborn,’ she says, laughing. ‘But at the same time he’s never been confrontational; he’s not that personality at all.
‘He’s changed and gotten better, and compared to back then he has a lot more sway, but he won’t always express his frustration or anger at certain situations. He’s not going to show it to you if he’s pissed. He’ll fold his arms, and stand there, and say nothing, and just look at you. I’m fiery, but outside. Bill’s fiery, but very much inside.’
Frisell and Andersen went into Talent Studio for a day, and the album was completed. Of the nine Frisell originals on the final record, four remained from the guitarist’s solo work on the first day, and five feature Andersen. Frisell titled the album In Line, after one of the tracks; if you look up the phrase in a dictionary, two definitions are ‘under control’ and ‘behaving properly or as required’.
‘Arild was amazing – he played beautifully, the vibe between us was great, and he lifted things up,’ Frisell says. ‘In the end, I was thankful for him for being there.’
The album was released in Europe in April the following year and was not quite the disaster Frisell felt it was proving to be after the first day’s recording. There are tracks, both with and without Andersen, that fail to really go anywhere. Yet you have to admire the guitarist’s reach. ‘The Beach’, for example, is six minutes of dark, swirling, turbulent undercurrents that sound like the score to a horror movie; it’s unlike anything else in the entire Frisell canon. The title track is similarly experimental: among the rapid harmonic clusters are dissonant sounds of cracked church bells, contorted gamelan and broken music boxes. In Line also contains one of Frisell’s earliest yet finest compositions, ‘Throughout’, a beautiful ache of a song that strongly suggested the guitarist had the potential to develop into a composer of deft and oblique originality.
‘If anybody was to ask me, “What’s so great about music?”’ says drummer Joey Baron, laughing, ‘I’d say, “Here, listen to this!” and I’d play them “Throughout” from that first record. It’s a beautiful song. I mean, it’s just how Bill makes that combination of melody and harmony work, where the song takes you. Jazz snobs might not agree, but in terms of music, it speaks to your inside.
‘When that happens, there’s no filter about colour, age, gender, where you’re from and what your identity is. None of that shit’s important when you hear something like “Throughout”. It just leaps right over all of those stupid walls. And when somebody can do that, it just makes the world a better place.’
The track has had a similarly powerful effect on singer Petra Haden. ‘When I first heard it, I said, “This is my favourite song, in the world,”’ she says, smiling. ‘There was a point where I would listen to “Throughout” for hours – how he layered the sound, like I enjoy doing when I record my vocals. The music reminded me of that feeling of being in a dreamland.’
The record is the first comprehensive look into Frisell’s emerging soundworld – there are country twangs, jazz harmonics, rock glissandos, folk acoustics, filmic intermissions, ambient abstractions and the orchestral overtones of violins, clarinets and horns. It’s a more fascinating album than Frisell often acknowledges. ‘I wanted to say something big or have a wide range of things,’ he explained in Guitar Player. ‘I wanted to play everything I possibly could, and I ended up with something less.’ Yet somewhere within In Line are the opening scenes of the guitarist’s elusive dream of music, the reverberations of an imaginative sound that would embrace all around it.
As well as recording ECM albums in Germany and Norway, and Paul Motian records for Soul Note in Milan, Europe was where Frisell mostly played and toured, far more so than in the US. The guitarist John Abercrombie used to say, ‘I’m a commuter: I live in America, but I work in Europe.’
In 1983 alone there were three tours with the Paul Motian Quintet – in France, Italy and an arduous five-week trip around the continent. Frisell had also been recruited to the new Jan Garbarek Group and there were tours of Norway, Europe and an appearance at the Bergen Jazz Festival with the saxophonist and a string orchestra. During 1983 Frisell spent 154 days working away from home: fifty-one in the US, 103 in Europe.
‘Europe has always been a better place to make a living, but it was especially so in the eighties,’ says Frisell. ‘Like most musicians I knew in New York, I’d go to Europe to play – and get paid. Maybe we didn’t make much money on those first tours with Paul [Motian], but it was still way more than what we would make in the States. Way more.’
The time away could be challenging, however, for Carole and the early years of the marriage. ‘At that time we could only communicate by phone once a week, because it was so expensive,’ she says. ‘So Bill being away so much put a strain on us. But I never really felt like we would split up. I was where I wanted to be, and with who I wanted to be. And I knew he was at the beginning of his journey, that he had something to say that was going to develop into something consequential later on. Also we made a pact: I hold down the fort; you keep your nose clean and your zipper zippered – no drugs, no messing around.’
Being a member of the Jan Garbarek Group gave Frisell a certain amount of standing and exposure in the US; the saxophonist had close associations with such respected American musicians as Keith Jarrett, Ralph Towner, Charlie Haden and George Russell. Garbarek had a small yet significant American audience, and in 1982 Frisell toured the US and Canada with the Norwegian’s group. ‘It wasn’t even a big tour, really, but that was the first time I travelled around the States playing music,’ says Frisell.
In March 1983 the new Garbarek group recorded a second album for ECM in Oslo, Wayfarer (in the interim Michael DiPasqua had replaced Jon Christensen on drums). The album contains some of the leader’s loveliest melodies and most absorbing compositions, and Frisell seems suitably inspired, revelling in the group dynamics and interaction, flying in and out of Garbarek’s swooping, spiralling and soaring improvisations. Shortly afterwards in New York, however, at the end of an American tour, a conflict arose between an upcoming Garbarek tour of Europe and a commitment Frisell had already made to play a similar series of dates with Paul Motian. Manfred Eicher expected Bill to play with Jan; these
were, after all, far more high-profile concerts in much larger venues. ‘No one at ECM had cleared the dates with me, or asked me to do the tour with Jan; they just assumed I would do it,’ says Frisell. ‘I mean, it was great playing with Jan, and he was always amazing, and we had some success with that group, but again, I felt cornered. So the four of us [in Jan’s band] had this big meeting, because they knew I was struggling with this, and I remember Eberhard gave me some advice. He said, “You know, sometimes you have to just do what you really believe in, what’s right and best for you, even if you end up hurting other people.” I listened to Eberhard, and I thought about it, and then I said, “OK, I’m sorry, but you’re right, I’m going to do what’s right and true for me . . .
I’m going to play with Paul.”’
Frisell had no doubts he had come to the right conclusion. ‘It wasn’t
like a fifty-fifty decision, or something, because there was no way I was going to cancel a tour with Paul,’ he says. ‘Even though I knew I’d probably screwed my whole relationship with Manfred and ECM, Paul was where my heart was, what I was committed to. I’d put way more time in with Paul, and . . . you know, it was too heavy a thing to mess with.’
Garbarek says he was extremely sad to see Frisell leave. ‘I was at a loss and didn’t really know what to do when Bill left,’ he says. ‘I really thought we had something very special together, so . . . yeah, it was a hard time, really. A short while after that I decided to go with keyboard players, and since then I haven’t really worked with guitarists.’
Manfred Eicher was much more disgruntled. ‘This was before my solo record had come out in the States,’ says Frisell, ‘and Manfred basically said something like, “If you don’t play with Jan, I don’t know what’s going to happen with your record.” It was pressure, you know.’ The US version of In Line did not appear until eight years later; it was released on CD with a different cover in 1991.
Eberhard Weber was nonplussed. ‘It was a shock to me that Bill was quitting the band to play with Paul,’ he writes. ‘There were no arguments, no animosity, but touring with Jan’s group, especially in Europe, would probably have doubled or tripled his income. It might also have allowed Bill and his wife to have moved to a nicer apartment. I seem to remember him telling me they were living above a particularly smelly fishmonger’s in New Jersey!’
To purchase Beautiful Dreamer, click here.