This interview took place over two days in January 2018. Thanks to Paul Sanwald for the transcription.
Ethan Iverson: Tell us where you’re from, Bill.
Bill Frisell: I was born in Baltimore, but my family moved to Denver. My father was a biochemist. He was born in Two Harbors, Minnesota, he went from Two Harbors to Saint Olaf and then from there to Johns Hopkins and got a PhD in Biochemistry in Baltimore. That’s where he met my mom who had grown up just outside of Baltimore, that side of the family comes from Baltimore or West Virginia, it starts to get into little bit Southern situation there.
Anyway, I was born in Baltimore March 18th, 1951. Within a few months, my father got a job at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver, so we moved to Denver, they got a 1951 Plymouth, brand new. We drove and left a trail of dirty diapers all the way across the country.
EI: Maybe I should just say for the record: We were playing a gig and you’re saying to someone, “Have you been to Two Harbors?” and I break in, “Yeah, I go there all the time!” My mom and all of her family were from Two Harbors. It’s not an obvious town, exactly….
BF: I’m still wondering if we must be some sort of relation? I had a lot of relatives in that town. My grandmother had four other sisters, they were all spread around the town, and their husbands. One of these sisters and her husband lived in the house just behind them. They were all like best friends.
EI: I asked around and couldn’t find anything, but I’m just gonna assume we are related, why not?
So, tell us about your first experiences getting into music. I feel like a guitar was not your first instrument…?
BF: I actually made a guitar when I was real young. I connected with the TV, I think. We first got a television when I was like three or four. I remember my father bringing this box into the house. 1954-55.That’s the time I grew up in and so on TV I watched The Mickey Mouse Club. At the end of the show, there was this older guy Jimmy who is the leader of all the Mouseketeers, a grown up. He would take his guitar and they all gather around and he would play the guitar. The guitar had Mickey Mouse ears painted on the front of it. I just thought it was so cool. I took a piece of cardboard and I drew out the shape of a guitar and I cut it out and put rubber bands on it. I was like four or five at the most when I did that.
I found a picture of me and my grandfather. My grandfather played violin, cornet, and baritone horn in the community band in Two Harbors, and I found a picture of me playing a ukulele and my grandfather playing this miniature violin, must have been when they were visiting for Christmas or I was there in Minnesota, but I had to be maybe three at the most in that picture, and I’m holding this ukulele like a normal guitar, so that fascination was there pretty early on.
In 4th grade, that’s when they’d start up music in the public schools. They just came around and asked if anybody wants to play an instrument, and my father liked the clarinet so he made this suggestion and I just went for it.
I began in the school music program and at the same time, friends of my parents knew of an organization called The Denver Youth Musicians. It was a band program outside of the public school system and they signed me up for that as well. The director was Jack Stevens. He passed away maybe 10 years ago now, but he was also a clarinet player so I took private lessons with him. He was super strict, really hardcore. You had to memorize all the names of the notes and you had to get a certain amount of stuff straight with just basic theory things before he’d even let you touch your instrument.
There was a beginning band and then an intermediate band and then the Gold Sash Band. That was the big deal. There is a picture of mine somewhere where I’m wearing the uniform and we had to wear this gold sash thing and fairly quickly I kind of went up through the ranks of that.
I remember the first gig. It was the Denver Stock Show parade. Every winter, down in the industrial area they bring all the livestock and auction them off and chop them up and that’s what we’d eat every day. The band was invited to march in the parade. I was like, “Oh my God!” I was going to have my uniform and practice the music and da da da. It was really cold. We had to march, real strict about keeping the lines straight, super military kind of thing. It was a stock show parade right? So we’re marching behind all these cows.
EI: You’re in freezing temperatures and the cows are in front of you.
BF: There’s shit everywhere, we had to just walk in a straight line and I remember stepping right into it and it was like splat! It was so cold I couldn’t play, I couldn’t feel the instrument. I remember coming off of that parade just feeling really forlorn, worried that the director would be mad at me.
There were a lot of those parades with that band. The first time I went to New York was with them for the 1964 World’s Fair. I found out that Paul was also there playing in a cowboy band.
EI: Paul Motian!?
BF: He said he was in some country band, like a cowboy thing, where he was wearing a cowboy hat or something. I mean, this is the time, you know, ’64?
EI: Just made a record with Gary Peacock and Bill Evans!
BF: Yeah, but it was a gig. We were there at the same time, but that was my very first trip coming to New York.
EI: So, how did you find your way to the guitar?
BF: With the clarinet, it seemed like from the beginning I’d always end up being the first chair. I didn’t rebel against it. I guess I liked it enough to keep doing it, and I was doing well at it. I never felt like my heart was totally in it but for some reason I could do it.
My friend across the street had a guitar sitting around in his house. I kind of just noodled around on it. This is around the time that instrumental surf music was happening. That was the stuff that really got me and I really started lusting after this thing.
EI: You’re talking about the The Ventures?
BF: Yeah, there was a surf band, The Astronauts, which was absurd, they were from Colorado. They were a local band but they had a little bit of a national hit I guess. They were from Boulder.
EI: Of course, fairly recently you made an album of that kind of music.
EI: I loved that stuff at a similar age. When you go back to “Telstar” it’s still surprising.
BF: That’s an amazing tune!
EI: It’s almost like an Ornette Coleman-ish feeling. Pure melody: very surreal, but very pure.
BF: Oh yeah, when you said that, I just heard Science Fiction.
I got a cheap acoustic guitar for Christmas, like a $20 thing that barely played and then I traded that for a classical guitar and I took some lessons. There was The Denver Folklore Center which was incredible, when I think about that place now I’m like, “Whoa.” They had a record store, a guitar shop, repair shop, and a performance space. Bob Dylan would show up in the early 60s. Harry Tuft is the guy that started the whole thing and I just saw him when I was in Denver recently.
Fast-forward, in summer of ’65, I got an electric guitar.
The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. There was surf music, there’s the Rolling Stones and then all these British bands. I had this Manfred Mann album, everybody knows “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” but they also did “I Got my Mojo Working.” There was something in that: I didn’t know that it was blues, didn’t even know what it was called.
I’ve always liked Bob Dylan, somehow just went through everything, through all my phases. You know some people come in and out. He was very early in stuff that I loved and I don’t think there was ever a point when I thought he wasn’t cool.
When I was in high school I might have thought, “Burt Bacharach: that’s just way too corny,” but then 20 years later, my God, Burt Bacharach, this is the heaviest shit I’ve ever heard.
Bob Dylan somehow went all the way through all of that. And then when you look at so many things I’ve done, people said, oh I did this, I did that. All I did was lift it from somebody else that already did it.
EI: Keith Jarrett’s album Somewhere Before begins with a Bob Dylan tune…
BF: That’s just what I was going to say!
Within three years I went from hearing the Ventures to hearing Wes Montgomery. That happened because my band director at school asked me if I could learn this song for the all school talent show. These girls that were doing this dance routine to “Bumpin’ on Sunset” and he gave me the Wes Montgomery album “Tequila”. I hadn’t heard that music, so this was the major seismic shift in everything.
Wes Montgomery, oh my God.
I could kind of pick out that tune, luckily it was on one chord. (Then it turns out that it’s Ron Carter, there he was.) So I went to Woolworths because you could get Riverside and Blue Note cutouts for 79 cents or however much it was. There was a Wes Montgomery record in there, his first Trio record with Melvin Rhyne and Paul Parker, they do “‘Round Midnight” and “Satin Doll” and all those songs and it just sounded so beautiful to me and it sucked me in.
In the summer of 68, the Newport Jazz Festival is touring, the traveling version. Wes Montgomery was supposed to be there and that’s the reason I wanted to go. My dad got us tickets, but Wes died just weeks before.
We had the tickets, so, let’s go anyway. On the bill were Monk and Cannonball and Dionne Warwick (who I think was the big draw) and the Gary Burton quartet.
EI: With Larry Coryell?
BF: Yeah, Larry Coryell and Swallow and Bob Moses. Coryell just freaked me out.
My mind was already fried at that point anyway. It was all too much to process. A few months before that I heard Jimi Hendrix live right after his first record came out. It was like “what the fuck is this?” I remember feeling like I couldn’t even grasp it as being a guitar and he was just a mass of sound….
EI: What was the venue you saw Hendrix in?
BF: It was Regis College. February 14th 1968. Three dollars.
EI: Was that with Mitch Mitchell?
BF: Yeah, Soft Machine opened for them.
When I went to that concert with the Newport thing Monk played. I didn’t know who Monk was. I thought, “Well, he sounds good,” but I remember the audience booed him!
BF: Yeah, it was Red Rocks Amphitheater, so it was a big place.
EI: I suppose they were waiting for Dionne Warwick to come on…
BF: I don’t know, I was so young. But I remember them booing Monk, especially because of what he meant to me later on.
EI: You saw Charles Lloyd around then too.
BF: Just a few months later. Charles Lloyd was on cover of Downbeat and I’m like, “Wow, that guy looks cool,” so me and my friend went to see Charles. That was Keith who I had never heard of, not that many people had at that point. I have it in Paul’s book, I think it’s January ’69. I think they were coming from UCLA, damn. So it wasn’t Jack, it was Paul, and Ron McClure and Keith. Keith blew my mind, I never heard anything remotely like that. The first record I bought right after that was Somewhere Before. That was the first time I heard Charlie.
EI: Charlie even opens the record.
BF: I hadn’t even heard Ornette at that point.
Charlie had that sound. I just basically copy all these other people, you know. Gary Burton: on Tennessee Firebird he goes to Nashville and plays with a bunch of Nashville guys, I go to Nashville and play with a bunch of Nashville guys. All this stuff’s been done before. When critics talk about me they talk about “Americana” this or “Country” this or that. I mean I’m sorry but, I’m just following along.
EI: It’s kind of easy to forget that Keith played Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell tunes when he was young.
BF: The Mourning of a Star is so beautiful too.
EI: Who’s that teacher that had a Dennis Sandole connection?
BF: Oh yeah, that’s Dale Bruning. Dale Bruning had relocated from Philadelphia to Denver. He was a student of Dennis Sandole, he knew Wes Montgomery, and he knew Milt Jackson, and knew Percy Heath. When I came for that first lesson, I kind of could play a blues scale kind of thing, I couldn’t really play a song or anything. So many guys would have just said, “Get the hell out of here you can’t play,” or something, but he said, “Yeah, you’ve got kind of a bluesy feeling there, reminds me of Kenny Burrell.” I didn’t know who Kenny Burrell was, I basically only knew Wes Montgomery. (Of course I went out and bought a Kenny Burrell record.)
Right away he encouraged me rather than shut me down. I remember he asked, “Have you heard of Charlie Parker?” and I was like, “Is that a guitar player?”
Talk about opening the floodgates! He would write out Charlie Parker tunes or “The Shadow of Your Smile.” His system was coming directly from Dennis Sandole. Also he had all the stories, about hearing Miles with Cannonball, that band. “Yeah, Miles would just play the melody and then then the other guys would play for a while.” He talked about going to hear the Coltrane quartet and he could hardly take it, said it was just too much for him. He’d talk about Percy Heath’s beat. “There’s some guys that play behind the beat, some guys play ahead of the beat, you should check out Percy Heath, he plays right on it.”
Dale also played bass. He was a great bass player but he was frustrated, he didn’t want to be playing the bass anymore. He really wanted to devote himself to the guitar, but he was a great bass player so he’d get calls. Do you know who Johnny Smith is?
EI: “Moonlight in Vermont?”
BF: Yeah. Johnny Smith lived in Colorado Springs, and played every week at a place downtown Denver and Dale played bass. Dale was kind of bummed. He certainly respected Johnny Smith and thought he was a beautiful person, but I think what I was getting from Dale was a little bit of “God, I got to go do this gig” so that tainted my perception. I thought he was like this old fuddy-duddy corny guy. I never even fucking went to see him!
Dale was friends with Jim Hall, that’s how I met Jim myself eventually, so right away I was in that zone: Jim Hall playing with Art Farmer and Jim Hall playing with Sonny Rollins, and Jim Hall playing with Bill Evans.
Johnny Smith wasn’t as cool as Jim Hall, I thought. A year later I go to college. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I go to college in Greeley, University of Northern Colorado. I’m a clarinet major, but I’m playing guitar. Johnny Smith came to do guitar lessons at University of Northern Colorado, and I thought, “I might as well sign up.” He was so beautiful, so encouraging. Check out Johnny Smith if you want to see where I ripped “Shenandoah” off from. Talk about Americana. Johnny Smith played all those old folk songs.
EI: That’s beautiful.
BF: Jim Hall came to Colorado to play this gig at this bar, and the bass player was having some problems drinking then and wasn’t making it. So Jim knew that Dale was really trying to not play the bass but he’s in a jam. “Dale, I’m in trouble, could you please play bass?” But as a way to make it cool he said, well we could also play some duets, just two guitars. So that was amazing. A week in this little bar. It was just incredible to hear them play two guitars. It was that same club, the Senate Lounge, in downtown Denver, where I first heard Bill Evans with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell playing all week. This was another one of those major lessons for me.
I was still living in Greeley, Colorado. We’d come down to Denver every night, like an hour drive, in my little Volkswagen, to hear Bill Evans in this little club. It was fairly early in his relationship with Eddie Gomez. We were having these religious experiences every night. Every note I was flipping out.
So one night after one of the gigs, it’s downtown Denver, one in the morning or whatever it is, and I’m going to my get my car, and out in the middle of the street, under a streetlight, is Bill Evans. He is just standing there by himself kind of freaked out. He’d lost the ride to his hotel. My friends Lyle Waller, the trombone player, and Bob Gillis, the trumpet player, I think it was just the three of us, we go up to him and we’re like, “Mr. Evans, we’ve been here every night, and the music is just like from another world.”
He’s like, “Fuck, I lost my ride, can you give me one.”
So I get to give him a ride to his hotel, but in the meantime, we’re saying, “The music was just great,” and he was like, “Awwwww, man, this whole week I just haven’t been able to play anything.” He was so bummed.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I hadn’t figured that out yet, that we’re never going to get it. It was like just another bomb going off in my head. I thought, prior to that, if I really practiced hard and I get all these things together, then every night is going to be just like when I hear Bill Evans. It’s going to be ecstasy every time I play, you know.
EI: But he was totally drug.
BF: He was so bummed out. For me it was the realization that you never get there. You have to just keep plugging away and trying to get close. I love these recent Sonny Rollins interviews, where he talks about the process and the search for a lifetime.
EI: What did Paul Motian say about that sort of thing? Was he positive or negative in between the performances?
BF: Yeah, positive, but I feel like he had the knowledge that this is an ongoing thing. He certainly would respond when the stuff was happening. He was happy, there was joy in it, all the time. It was about keeping it in that place where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. He was so good.
A lot of times he’d give me a tune to play, I would play it, and then I would learn it a little better, and he would always say, “Man, you sounded better when you didn’t know it.” There’s a lot to that. Towards the end, we had a body of stuff and played the same tunes. They had a certain atmosphere, but within that framework, you didn’t know what was going to happen. So an attitude about knowing that you can’t figure it all out just became part of his way.
EI: Since we were talking about Paul a little bit, I feel like asking you about the Keith Jarrett American Quartet with Dewey and Charlie and Paul.
BF: I never got to see them live, but that was definitely a model for me, going back to Somewhere Before. Charles Lloyd led me to that. I thought, “Oh wow, that’s those guys, that’s the drummer and that’s the piano player and then there’s Charlie on that.” Right away it started sprouting branches. “Who is that guy Charlie?” Things were happening quick. I hadn’t yet heard of Ornette. Charlie led me to Ornette.
Bill Evans and Paul Bley and then Ornette. I was checking out the progression of what was happening structurally with the music. All those people I mentioned, there’s kind of the intermingling. Like Keith and Gary Burton making a record together where Sam Brown is playing guitar. Sam Brown played with Gary, Sam Brown played with Keith.
Sam Brown, he’s another guitar player that I don’t know if so many people acknowledge.
EI: Featured on Liberation Music Orchestra and other things.
BF: And he’s on Ron Carter’s first record…
EI: Wow, right, Sam Brown’s on Uptown Conversation, I forgot that.
BF: Yeah, there’s a classical guitar thing on there. And of course he played on Paul Motian’s first two records. Sparks are flying between all those things. Just as soon as you hear one thing, it would lead you to something else.
EI: In my opinion much of the best music of Ornette and Keith required Charlie to make it happen. Could you say something about Charlie?
BF: Whatever it is that I’m doing, he was an example. Charlie is huge. Saying that it’s okay to play “Shenandoah.” It connects to Johnny Smith or it’s okay to play a country song. That goes all the way back to The Carter Family.
You know Charlie said he’s sat on Maybelle Carter’s lap. You can’t get closer than that.
In the early 80s Charlie was putting the Liberation Music Orchestra back together. Paul recommended me to Charlie. This was when I was playing with Jan Garbarek, things are getting busy. We had this rehearsal, the first time I met Charlie, at Paul’s apartment. It was Carla and Steve Slagle and Charlie and me and Paul, and we just played through some tunes. I had met Carla. I used to play at 55 Grand Street with Mike Stern. We played there even before all the drug stuff and she would show up. But I remember I met her through D. Sharpe. So anyway, Paul recommended me and we had this rehearsal. I was so freaked out. I gave Charlie a ride to his hotel after.
I was so intimidated, totally scared the shit out of me just to be near that, you know it was too big.
I think I kind of maybe got the gig, but then there was a conflict with the schedule or something and they got Mick Goodrick, but then somewhere along the line there were some gigs Mick couldn’t do, and the first ones I did were at 7th Avenue South. I wish I could remember everybody that was in the band. Amina Claudia Meyers, Craig Harris, Ken McIntyre and Dewey and Baikida Carroll. Jim Pepper was on that one, maybe Cecil Bridgewater. The stage was so small and there was no place for me to be. Charlie’s bass, this was before he had all the Plexiglass, his bass was like 3 inches from my head. I was surrounded by Charlie and Paul. There wasn’t that much for me to play anyway. You have all this stuff going on and then there’s like a thing in the middle where you play a little cadenza, try to make some Spanish thing. He insisted that I have a nylon string acoustic guitar, I was living in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. I borrowed a guitar from a guy who lived across the street. I’m still feeling guilty about that cuz he had this brand new beautiful classical guitar and I was just strumming, pounding in it, and at the end of the night, it had scratch marks all over the front of it.
Anyway, that sound, being that close to that beat, the way Charlie and Paul played together, having it just mash your head together. And there was another gig I did with them at Sweet Basil. A whole week there, every night with the Liberation Music Orchestra. After that I got to play with Charlie more often. That Sanborn record, also with Joey too, on that Scofield record. Then those records with Paul. Always the stuff with Paul was just incredible.
EI: I love those Motian Broadway records with Charlie.
BF: That felt just so good.
EI: I especially admire that third one with Lee Konitz, that’s a pretty special record.
BF: Paul’s thing with Lee was so deep. On one gig they played “The Way You Look Tonight” or something like that, just Paul and Lee together. Wow.
There was one gig, it was sort of an offshoot of the Broadway thing. Charlie never did any of those gigs. We did a whole tour with Marc Johnson, but there was one gig early on and for some reason Joe couldn’t do it, so we got Dewey, Charlie couldn’t do it, so we got Gary Peacock.
EI: Was Lee on it as well?
BF: Yeah, so Lee, Dewey, Peacock, me and Paul. That was the first time I played with Peacock. I’ve been pretty lucky with bass players!
It was unbelievably easy to play with Peacock. I could just play any anything. It was just “bam,” he was with me. From a distance you might think he’s playing actively or something but it’s not him, it’s the music.
EI: How did Lee and Dewey relate each other? This is a little hard for me to imagine…
BF: Lee got a little grumpy, Dewey played long solos. It was so great. He would do that in Liberation Music Orchestra, play like really long…but it was great. After the gig, I think Lee was feeling some competition, which wasn’t there.
BF: I’m reading that Monk book, finally. Last night I put on one of those Proper Boxes. It’s got that awesome chronology, and I was listening to some of that stuff.
EI: Monk is one of those guys, I’m sure you agree: You love it, you check it out, you forget about it, you go back and check it out again and it’s even greater than you remember. Every time, and it happens over and over again!
BF: It’s relentless, dangerous.
EI: What was your first Monk record?
BF: Blue Note had a “Three decades of jazz” compilation, and that had Monk on it. It also had Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith with Kenny Burrell, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, Coltrane’s “Blue Trane.” I used to get these “best of” albums, like John Coltrane on Atlantic. “Giant Steps,” “Cousin Mary,” “Central Park West,” “Naima,” that was the blueprint of Coltrane for me. There was a “best Of Ornette” with “Ramblin’,” all those songs, those are the deepest in me from that period. Then there was a “best of Monk on Riverside,” “best of Sonny Rollins on Prestige,” some of them were double albums. The Sonny one had just primo Sonny on there. I remember when I was still in high school, my friend and I bought Live At the Village Vanguard, with Elvin and Wilbur Ware. I knew he was supposed to be good, and we put that on and it sounded like, just complete abstract… I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But, gradually, the stuff on that record got placed in the “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard” area of stuff.
EI: You told me about seeing Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard later. You were in NY in the early 70s for a minute, right?
BF: Kind of. I went to Boston to study two times. The first attempt was Berklee in the fall of ’71. Not long before that I had met Jim Hall. At that time, I couldn’t see anything but that, basically. Just Jim Hall, and the strands that went off of him, the mid 50s, Charlie Parker, mid-late 40s to early 60s. I just wanted to be a bebop guy, and I shut out everything else that had led up to that point as kid’s stuff. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And any kind of rock and roll, I was kinda closed off. Some of that I got from Dale Bruning. I shouldn’t blame him, but at the same time, he would make little comments like in rock music the chords weren’t right, or the harmony didn’t move in the right way, or they were too simple, or it was too loud. So I definitely had tunnel vision about it.
I went to Boston for the first time and it didn’t click, there were all these rock and roll guys, and I connected with maybe a couple people, but it was a drag. I was coming in cold, so I was in the beginning classes in these big classrooms. One thing that was cool is that I was in two of Gary Burton’s classes, I was in an ensemble with him, but I think I barely played a note, I was like the invisible kid in the corner. That was maybe the first time I felt the power, when he would play…. It still happens to me, after all this time, when you play with a master…. I had never felt that power.
We were playing some tune, “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise,” and reading the changes and thinking we’re sounding good, and then I remember the feeling when Gary came in and played with us, just the power of someone that could actually play.
I didn’t like Boston, I was living in a dorm, my roommate one day had a hooker in my bed. The neighborhood was intense. There was a suite of 2 rooms, 3 guys in each room, horrible food, and I didn’t like my roommates.
I had John LaPorta for a class, Gary Burton, but it didn’t click. Also there was a guy Tom Vandergeld, great vibes player, I looked up to him, I connected with him. There were a few guys, Harvey Wainapel, Bern Nix was there. I didn’t know Bern, we’d just say hi in the hallway.
And there was the Jazz Workshop, that was the thing. The Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall were on Boylston St. Walking distance from the school. I heard heavy music there. Fred Taylor ran those places. He’s at Sculler’s in Boston now. I got to meet him later and was so great to talk to him about that time. He’s close to 90 now.
I heard Herbie with Mwandishi at the Jazz Workshop.
EI: What was that like to see live?
BF: I was into it, my understanding had grown, but still, it was like, “Woooooooow.” I mean, it was awesome, but as far as being able to decipher it?
EI: I’ve talked to a lot of people who saw that group, really say that was one of the best groups to see live.
BF: I’ve gotta go back, because I can make a little more heads and tails out of it now.
I heard Anthony Braxton with that band with Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler, Barry Altschul, no one knew who Kenny Wheeler was. Saw McCoy so many times, the band with Alphonse Mouzon, the quartet with Sonny Fortune. Just seeing McCoy walk onto the stage, just the vibe, my god.
EI: They played really loud, that group. that was an intense band.
BF: And I don’t think it comes across on record. There’s that one LP, Sahara? The recording compresses it, it doesn’t get the sound. It was bigger, the way it sounded live.
EI: I don’t think anyone played louder or faster than McCoy Tyner, and that period was the loudest and fastest he ever played.
BF: One time I heard him, Alphonse was with Weather Report, then Eric Gravatt, and these drummers were switching bands. I saw this gig with McCoy, and I think Alphonse was playing part of the gig, and then the next time Eric Gravatt played, and I just remember the look on their faces, just this joy. It was the first night they had played, they had played before, but it was some sort of re-connection. They were looking straight at each other and McCoy was just smiling. They were just kind of laughing at each other, they’d play those eight bars and it would come out on the “one,” and it was just this joy thing.
I saw Ron Carter there where he was playing piccolo bass and had Buster Williams, I saw Pat Martino playing duo, I saw Sonny in Paul’s Mall, I saw BB King, really close. That was another one of those one note things, where the band comes out, and they were just killing, you can’t even believe it, then BB King comes out, and it was like, “holy fuck!” I couldn’t fucking believe it, cuz you were already high as you thought you could get, and then he just went BAM! And where he put it, just the one note, it was so heavy. And James Cotton was in town, and he comes up on stage and they started playing together. I saw Gary Burton, I saw Pat Metheny with Jaco and Bob Moses, although I had seen them a bunch before, they were playing in little bars and stuff, that was big time for them. I saw Pat’s first gig with the Pat Metheny Group with Lyle Mays. I saw MJQ, I saw Bill Evans, I saw, what was that band with Cedar Walton?
EI: Eastern Rebellion?
BF: Yeah, so much stuff there. Jack Dejohnette, Dave Liebman, Larry Coryell, Tony Williams, Airto, Stuff, Dave Sanborn, Hubert Laws, Pharaoh Sanders…
And it was cheap, because you were a student.
BF: I ended up taking eight lessons with Jim Hall in 1972. In the first lesson, he’s talking about Sonny Rollins, and the idea of taking small increments of material and developing them. He was trying to get me aware of what I was playing. We played “Stella By Starlight,” I was probably just running scales or arpeggios. I had some of that stuff together and I could get through it, but I probably wasn’t saying anything. He was using Sonny as an example of taking a fragment of something and trying to play it again, use little bits of stuff and try to develop it. Like “St. Thomas,” those two notes [sings the motive from solo]. Sonny happened to be at the Vanguard that week, so I’d just had this lesson with Jim, and then I get to go to the Vanguard and hear Sonny.
EI: Who was in the band?
BF: Albert Dailey, Larry Ridley, and David Lee. Now, in my own mind, my memory, it’s one of these mythological things. I was in the back, where I still love to be, against that back wall, and my chest was just shaking. He wasn’t using a mic, he would just sort of walk around the front of the stage, and the place was packed because it was after another one of his sabbaticals. I remember standing next to Link from the Mod Squad, Clarence Williams III? I used to watch Mod Squad in high school, and I go see Sonny and Clarence is standing right next to me.
EI: Who else did you see at the Vanguard, Return to Forever?
BF: Yeah, and the record hadn’t even come out yet, so I thought it was going to be Circle with Braxton. They had all these amps piled up behind them, and I was confused, because Airto was playing drums, and it was Flora, and…
EI: Joe Farrell? Stanley Clarke?
BF: Everybody was talking about Stanley Clarke, everyone was freaking out about him, he was super young, maybe 20. I was with two friends of mine from Colorado, one of them was a bass player who was studying with a protege of Gary Karr, like a super heavy classical bass player, and he came with us too. But everyone was flipping out over Stanley. The sound was coming from that wall, not the PA, just the stage.
I was in the Vanguard right when Bitches Brew came out. Just picture being down there and it’s just filled with smoke, everyone is smoking, and you’re waiting for the band, whoever I was there to see, Mingus or something, but they are blasting Bitches Brew on the PA, and the vibe was just so awesome, at the edge of what was happening at that moment.
EI: You saw jazz take on rock music, and you’ve had a lot to say about that yourself musically over the years.
BF: I was sort of in and out of it, I shut it out when I got so deep into the bebop thing. It was only a couple years when I was really closed off to it, but it was those couple years where I could have seen Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I didn’t. I didn’t see the first Weather Report. That I regret. Then quickly I sorted it out and opened myself back up. We talked about that, that Somewhere Before record, looking back, it made sense for the music. The musicians, all along, everybody would take other music that was around and transform it. The key, for me, to open up and not think I had to be in the 50s was Sonny Rollins, if I’m really looking at what he was playing, it was his soundtrack. “St. Thomas,” his life experience. He wasn’t afraid to play “I’m an Old Cowhand,” even though people might say, “Oh, that’s a corny tune.”
Even when I’d play with Paul, he was playing songs that were in his DNA from that time growing up. For me, I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles and all that, can’t I use that? It also became part of the texture of the sound. If I’m gonna play the guitar, there’s a lot of things that happened with the guitar, ways of hitting it.
EI: Did you ever play with organ trio?
BF: Hardly at all, there were a couple times, I kind knew what it felt like, rock bands I would play in…
EI: As you know, some of the textures of rock comes out of the organ trio, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Cream. Drummers could play so much louder and freer with an organ than with a piano player.
BF: I did a couple gigs, sub for somebody and it was that, and it was definitely a different feeling. Already, the piano can obliterate the guitar, the balance is way off. But an organ takes it to another level, where there can almost be more room for the guitar. The first time I heard Tony Williams Lifetime, it didn’t dawn on me until years later that it was an organ trio with Larry Young.
EI: After Abercrombie died, I was listening to his first record, Timeless, and that’s an organ trio record.
BF: I didn’t think of it that way, but that’s what it is. And Abercrombie played a fair amount of real organ trio at some point.
EI: Some people say that when the ECM records arrived in the 70s, they were real events, you almost had to go buy them and check them out.
BF: Totally. Even the records themselves, they were thicker, the green label, you would know that something was going to be happening. The first ones I heard were those Chick Corea solo ones, then Facing You, then the duet with Jack and Keith, it was hard to find for a while, but I love that record.
And Dave Holland, Conference Of The Birds, Sam Rivers, that was a major kind of model. I remember trying to play some of those tunes and trying to understand them.
EI: I guess you got to back to Boston at some point. And I want to hear how you ended up with Paul Motian.
BF: I’ve told this a million times, but going back to that second time I was in Boston, I met Pat Metheny, and he was forever an advocate for me, way before anyone else could care less. In some of his first interviews he would mention me, he’s always been there for me. In ’75 I went to Boston, he was there, he didn’t have his own band but was doing his own gigs in bars with Jaco (who nobody knew) and Moses. And that messed me up. It was bad, bad, it was traumatic. In ’75 when I went back to Boston, I was starting to get this vision of what I possibly could do and opened my mind up to my own past, and thought there’s stuff on this instrument that no one has even touched. I was really into Paul Bley, Sonny, Anthony Braxton, Conference of the Birds, Keith. I was thinking of putting all this other music onto the instrument. I was playing Paul Bley tunes, and Monk tunes, I was trying. I get to Boston and there’s this guy Pat, he was playing Paul Bley and “Nefertiti” and it was just like “fuuuuuuuuuck!” He was just massacring it. In my mind there was this inkling of what could be, and he was just slaying it. He was there already. Everybody was trying to play like Pat, I even got an amp like Pat’s, he was such a heavy guy. He had this mastery of the instrument and more importantly the way he was thinking. He had played with Paul Bley. At first I would go to clubs to hear him, but he was always around town. We’d do a recital or a little gig, and there he was, he’d be checking me out. I asked him for a lesson and we just played and he’d say, “Man, you don’t need a lesson,” and another time, he said, “man could you come over?” and I just went over and we just played. Just a couple times we did that, but he was always helping me out.
I want to acknowledge Bob Moses, he was a massive turning point. When I first moved to New York Mike Gibbs would call me, and I did a gig at 7th Ave South with Mike Gibb’s band and I met Bob Moses and Steve Swallow, and right away Moses started calling me for stuff, and I played on his record, that’s where I met Julius Hemphill for the first time. And Pat also was producing one of Moses’ records, and he was always in my corner.
So in ’79 I had come back to New York and doing a lot of gigs that were bumming me out, and jam sessions with friends from Boston, and a few gigs with Moses, not much else. Carole was making most of the money, she worked in a dry cleaning place, a kosher sausage factory, as a nurse’s aid, a bookkeeping place, we were just barely scraping by. Living in a tiny apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ. I would drive to the end of Long Island to play a wedding. I was up in Boston doing this gig at a hotel, and I remember just feeling really discouraged, driving all the way up there, and it was a commercial top 40 gig, just a drag. It was over Thanksgiving and I was away from Carole.
I had checked out Paul’s first record from the library, Conception Vessel. I get home and I’m sitting on the floor, looking at that album cover, and I’m like, “This is hard,” then the phone rings and it’s like “Hey man, it’s Paul Motian. Wanna come over?” And that was Pat Metheny again, he had recommended me. Paul had done these gigs with Pat and Charlie, sort of like, 80/81, but just Dewey and Paul and Charlie and Pat played at the Vanguard.
Paul was trying to put something new together, and Pat recommended me, and just on that word Paul called me, and it blew my mind. That was like the Miles Davis phone call for me. His zone of music, that’s where I wanted to be, and he had already been such an inspiration, and there was no telling where he was headed. He was still finding his own thing, too, and it was incredible to be part of that. So, I went over to his place, and I still remember, when he opened the door, just the energy. He had cargo pants on, a flannel shirt, and the door opens and it’s kind of a speedy thing, he’s kind of short. And it was me and Marc Johnson, who I had never met. Bill Evans had passed away not too long ago, this was January ’81, and Paul had re-connected with Bill just before he passed, they hadn’t talked for a long time before that. Maybe they would have ended up playing again, who knows? So Paul and Marc are talking about Bill Evans, and then, “What should we start with?” and we played “My Man’s Gone Now”. I had listened to that song so much with Jim Hall and Bill Evans, and just my associating that song with Bill Evans and then walking in to play it with those guys.
EI: That’s the first song you played with Paul Motian and Marc Johnson, and right after Bill Evans died, “My Man’s Gone Now?” Wow.
BF: I think that’s true. That song, I had been struggling with to try to figure it out. It’s another song that I keep playing, I still play it a lot. There’s so many ways of getting through that thing. Bill Evans version is, in a weird way, sort of a reduction, it’s simplified, but has some other stuff in there. So we played that day, and I thought, “I hope it was cool,” and Paul said “Do you wanna come back next week?” and I was like “YEAH.”
Then Marc went out with Stan Getz, so he wasn’t around, and then we started playing with Marty Ehrlich, playing saxophone and bass clarinet, just trio with me and Paul. Then Marty brought in Stan Strickland, who I knew from Boston. Marty brought in Ed Schuller, and Ed knew Joe Lovano. I kinda knew Joe. In Boston, those few years, Joe was out of school and playing with Woody Herman and it was always this thing of, playing a gig, and someone says “Lovano’s in town,” the door would open, and this big guy would come in and blow everyone away. We had a band with Tiger Okoshi, Tommy Campbell played drums, Frank Wilkins played keyboards, and Kermit Driscoll played bass. Tiger’s Baku.
That was toward the end of my time in Boston. We’d play every Monday night at this club, and it was a thing, it was mobbed. Pooh’s Pub. All Tiger’s music, electric, just awesome. Pat would come hear the band. One time we were at that gig and Joe stormed the bandstand. He’d just walk into a place and take over. I still had never talked to him.
EI: He still does that.
BF: Just the confidence, just a badass. He came in on that band, and just blew everyone away, and then left.
With Paul it eventually settled on me, Joe and Ed. We didn’t do a gig until the fall of that year at Ryle’s in Boston. So it was almost a year of just going once a week to his place. And then Billy Drewes joined us for our first European tour and the Psalm recording.
EI: Let’s talk about Motian’s compositions for a minute.
BF: They’re beautiful!
EI: Did you hear him play them on the piano?
BF: Not really, maybe a couple notes here and there, but mainly it was me playing.
Sometimes he’d have just me come. He just wanted to hear the tunes, sometimes before the rehearsal or by myself, just play what he was writing.
EI: Would he sing them?
BF: Sometimes, a little bit. He’s say to play it a little slower, or faster.
EI: I got the impression, the little that I worked with him, that he wanted the musicians to take it over. He would write this and then wanted to hear the other person’s interpretation.
BF: It always felt like it was my music, somehow. I could tell he was getting off on hearing… But sometimes he would reject stuff, or try to find chords.
[Recently this extraordinary 1986 video of Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, and Joe Lovano in 1986 surfaced on YouTube.]
EI: Did Paul Motian ever talk about Armenia?
BF: Not really, but there’s all those songs that are for people in his family.
EI: The publishing company, Yazgol, is for his grandmother, who was killed by Turkish soldiers.
BF: Some of those people had lived through this horrendous massacre. I can’t remember if it was him that didn’t want to talk about it, or if it was his relatives. But he didn’t seem to want to, what’s the right word, “cash in?” He wasn’t into drawing attention to that. He didn’t shy away, but one time we played with Joe, there was a Armenian relative in Paris, it was a gig that was sponsored by an Armenian thing, some wealthy guy, and I remember that their attitude was to embrace Paul as an Armenian, one of us, but he was like…
EI: Kept it at a distance?
BF: He felt, I’m an American, he didn’t want to attach himself to it, so much.
EI: Even the pronunciation “Motion,” is Americanized.
BF: “Mo-tee-ahn,” back in the day. I definitely got that his ancestors had been through serious genocide situation.
EI: I like to talk about the music, maybe too much. I wanted to interview Paul, and he would never do it, probably because he knew the kind of questions I wanted to ask. But he told me about a phrase him and Dewey had, which was, “Music, you can’t explain it.”
I was never in a Paul Motian band, but I get the impression he didn’t talk about it very much. Is that true?
BF: Yeah, I think that’s true, we just played. At the beginning, we did rehearse, there were years of that. Clearly he knew what he wanted, but also I felt like it was my band. He made us all feel that way I think. He was generous. There were a few situations before where I really felt like I could be myself. Moses was one of them, he heard something, and gave me a chance. But, a lot of the people I played with before Paul, I was supposed to be a guitar player, and there was sort of this role, but with Paul, I was just supposed to play myself. I felt like he wanted me as a person, not just a guitar. So the music felt different, like “I wrote that,” or something.
But without talking about it, his presence, whether he was playing or not, it would direct the music. It wasn’t like he would shy away from talking about it, but what I remember him talking about was more like the news, or any other thing that happened. Or, the enthusiasm when he would talk about Monk, or all the musicians he loved. There was definitely like “faster,” or “slower,” or “don’t just rush through that,” or “you sound better when,” like a bunch of times, when I’d play something, for the first time trying to get through, and then I’d figure it out, and I’d play it again, and he’d be like, “Man, sounded way better when you didn’t know it,”
And those last records, there’s a lot of stuff that we were just barely playing. Basically on the recording, what’s on the record is the first and last time we played some of that stuff.
EI: It’s striking to go back and listen to It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago, the first trio record on ECM, it’s so different then what came before but also what came after.
BF: I haven’t even listened to it…
EI: There’s overdubbing, guitar synthesizers…
BF: That was the period when I was playing that thing all the time. It was recorded during the first tour we had, and I remember during that tour, I don’t think it was just me, it was Paul, we were finding… I remember struggling, trying to fill in things all the time, just learning that I didn’t have to do that. I’m not sure about the records, but on the gigs, I was in a panic, if it was an in-tempo regular song with chords and bass notes, I would feel like I had to get those bass notes, but then gradually, and I think it was with him too, we were able to just let those go. We knew that those notes were there, but we didn’t always have to play them. When we did that record, it was definitely the early stages of learning how to relax and let the space happen.
EI: Well, you both have an ability to play fewer notes, but they are really connected notes, the music is still happening between the notes. It’s not just an attack that falls, and then another attack. No, here’s something, and it’s spanning the time, and then something else happens, like a melodic…
BF: I hope so. I don’t feel like I have the facility, sometime in my head, I’m hearing an amazing stream of eighth notes, but I just can’t do it. If the thing is going strong, I can let it go, without playing everything. I can just grab on to…. Like a couple weeks ago I went to hear Alan Broadbent with Don Falzone and Billy Mintz, it was really great, at the end they played “What is This Thing Called Love?” pretty fast, it was smokin’ and swinging, sounded great. Don’s pumping along, beautiful walking bass, and then there’s a drum solo, and he was just drums, and Billy probably played about five notes in three choruses, but the swing propulsion never left. But he played so minimally, never any tricky fast stuff.
Anyway, recently hearing exactly what you’re describing, and what I wish I could… I mean, I wish I could just burn it through, but it’s hard, because it doesn’t happen right unless I’m at a point where I probably could do that if I wanted to, because you have to be so hooked up in it. But in fast tempos, I struggle. I think I mentioned that drummer D Sharpe, and he was another major brother guy, we used to play a lot, I’d go over and we’d play tunes super fast, I’ve never been that good, fast.
EI: We were talking about your song “Throughout” and the fact that the chart you hand out these days has a Carla Bley counter line.
BF: I wrote some things before that, but “Throughout” sort of stands out for me as maybe the first song that I wrote. Somehow it just came out and “that was easy.” Way back when D. Sharpe was playing with Carla Bley, I made this little cassette of just myself playing. I think I had a 4-track or something so I had some overdubs on it, but I gave D Sharpe that cassette, and he played it for Carla so that would have been ’79 or ’80, I remember him saying “Wow, Carla just loved that song.” Way back then, I was playing with Mike Stern a lot and we played at the 55 Bar, and Carla would come by. I think I already described that time when I first met Charlie and was with Carla and Charlie and Paul and Steve Slagle in Carla’s apartment. I told you what I thought about Paul Bley, and then I realized the role Carla played in the architecture of Paul Bley is just massive.
EI: it’s impossible to overstate.
BF: I mean Paul Bley. It is also impossible to overstate for me how heavy he is, but him having the combination of those incredible things that Carla wrote that he plays, that’s gigantic for me.
EI: I found it shocking when I looked at Carla Bley’s own charts in her handwriting of that early music, it’s exactly what he plays on all those records. It’s not like he made his own, even, he just plays it down. Of course he improvises, but his respect to the text is quite notable.
Anyway, how did ‘Throughout” get a little hand-written note that says, “Carla Bley counterline?”
BF: Years and years go by, and I recorded it with Petra, Charlie’s daughter. We did a duo record in 2001. That’s where Charlie heard the song for the first time, so he started playing it. Carla is so funny, her sense of humor is amazing. Charlie liked the song and he wanted to play it. So at the North Sea Jazz Fest, we are all somehow in the same place at the same time, at a dinner table or something. I was with Charlie and Carla and I remember, she was joking, but she was like “Goddamn, that tune!” I had played it with Charlie on a duo gig and he wanted Carla to arrange it for the Liberation Orchestra. It was such a gigantic compliment from her, but it was given in this way of like she was mad at me, “Man, this tune, there’s nothing I can do with it, it’s perfect,” like she was really pissed at me for writing this thing that was so perfect. So, she does her arrangement, when I first heard it, I was like, “what the hell?” you know there’s nothing, it’s just Charlie playing a solo over the arpeggio, but there’s nothing there, just the barest minimal notes that I wrote. But then at a certain point, I remember she did say “yeah it just keeps going down and down and down and down.” I’m curious what her memory of this sequence is, to me it’s a big deal that Carla Bley would even be bothered to look at one of my charts, that’s fuckin’ awesome! And then the idea that Charlie Haden would want to play one of my tunes? That’s pretty great, right? When I finally heard what she did, it’s the most genius Carla Bley… That’s the thing, when she plays, too. Like playing just that one note. I always loved hearing her play in her band, it was distilled down into the most intense one note or two notes. So this thing she did, when the chords are moving down, and the melody is moving down, it’s just 6 chords, so all she did was write a chromatic scale going up against the whole thing going down, and the way some of the notes rub, I think, “Why couldn’t I have thought of that? So anyway, she got me, for whatever she said about “man why couldn’t I have written it” or whatever she said, and then she really slapped it back hard, you know. “Ok, you think this tune is so bad, I’m gonna do the opposite, and it’s only one note at a time,” and it’s so great.
EI: You mentioned to me about Carla’s drummer, D. Sharpe, you said he wrote songs?
BF: Somewhere I have a recording. He wrote the words to songs, some of it almost like rap, he would talk. He was a one of a kind, I don’t know how to describe him. He had that thing, talk about that beat, his time was outrageously deep. The first time I met him was on a wedding gig. At that time he played with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and he was in Carla’s band. He was also friends with the bass player who died, Teddy Kotick, who played with Bill Evans. Paul and Teddy were also close.
D. Sharpe and I also played with Lowell Davidson. Paul Motian also had connection with Lowell Davidson. I’d be in this little club and Lowell would come, and he would just sit with me and I wouldn’t talk to him, he would talk to me and I would try to follow and it was just incredible. And then years later, we met through D Sharpe. I still wish I could get a tape of this gig, it was me and D. Sharpe and Lowell, but Lowell wasn’t playing piano he was playing an aluminum bass, incredible music in this little loft place. There was a tape, but the guy who taped it passed away, and I don’t know where anything is.
D. Sharpe knew Paul’s stuff, but he was super into African stuff, his thing with the beat was just heavy duty, but he was also into abstract things. Albert Ayler, DNA, The Shaggs, Frank Sinatra, Jon Hassell.
He drew constantly, he’d go on the subway and he would be drawing people’s pictures, incredible one of a kind.
EI: What did he die of?
BF: Real early in AIDs, He died of AIDs. I think it might have been a blood transfusion, he had some bad luck with doctors. he died just a little after I started my own band and stuff.
EI: Well, for this last section, let’s get some of this about Kermit, Hank, and Joey and the formation of that first quartet on tape because I don’t know how much of that has been told. Or at least, when you told me about it, I just loved hearing about it.
BF: I have to go back to that time in Boston in 1975 and I went by myself and I didn’t know anybody, Then I go to the the first day of classes, I was in the basement of the new big building on Mass Ave where they built the performance center and all that. So I see this guy and he’s got this sweatshirt that either said Kansas or Nebraska, and I felt like a Colorado and Kansas or Nebraska: “We’re like neighbors!” So just from that shirt, Kermit Driscoll and I connected.
We started doing jam sessions and pretty quickly we started this thing with the drummer Jun Saito from Japan. It was Jun’s group, “Triangle Relations,” he called it. We did a recital at the school that was cool, guitar-bass-drum trio and we were playing like McCoy songs and Jun was the one that was the leader but it was guitar-bass-drums trio.
I was really connecting with Kermit strongly. I needed work and Kermit helped me. He’d actually had quite a bit more actual playing experience than me prior to that, but more like in rock. I think he quit high school, he traveled around playing in rock bands around the Midwest like kind of ZZ Top-style and top 40 bands. He had experience in ways that I hadn’t, I was more like the Jazz nerd guy that came to town and he was like this guy that had been out actually doing gigs. Right away he got a gig in this band called the Boston Connection, it was an organ thing, Vinnie Colaiuta was playing drums, there were two women singers, one of the women was married to the organ player. Kermit got me an audition for that band, I got work doing that, and we got really tight. All throughout that time, just starting right at the beginning, we were playing a lot. and then when Tiger started that band Tiger’s Baku, I recommended Kermit for that. And we also played in Mike Gibbs’ student band, and then we left Boston to go to Belgium together: Vinnie Johnson, Greg Baldolato, Kermit, and me. We played there in Steve Houben’s band, Mauve Traffic.
After getting out of school Kermit was always there. So many times I’d write a tune, I’d be at a jam session and was shy about it, “Here, could we try this?” and I’d get shut down, usually people would play it and be like “Let’s get on to my shit.” My confidence with writing pretty much didn’t exist. I’ve had incredible good fortune with getting support and encouragement along the way. My parents, so many incredible teachers, friends, my wife and daughter. Just when I’d need it. A pat on the back.
But …one of the teachers I had, I have to say, shut me down so hard. When I think of what he could have said, it’s frustrating. I have no memory of his name, who he was, but early in my Berklee days, there was a composition class, and you were supposed to write a modal tune. Of course what he meant was, write “So What” or “Impressions” or whatever. I wrote this thing that followed all the rules but it was kind of a folk song or something. I brought it into the class and the guy said, “Are you kidding me? This is like folk music!” I mean he could have just turned that comment around and said, “Wow, it sounds like folk music!” That would have been great. But…I didn’t write anything for a long time after that. The fucking asshole prick bastard. Fuck you, whoever you are. I’d just like to say that now for the record.
Anyway, Kermit was maybe the first guy to be like, “Wow, that’s cool” when looking at my tunes, especially after we made that move to Belgium. He gave me confidence that there was something going on with my own thing.
EI: The fact that he had rock and roll experience seems very crucial in terms of finding this newer sound together.
BF: Yeah, you know he’s younger than me, was really into Led Zeppelin. I knew they were cool and everything but that’s when I was more into Lee Morgan.
EI: But I went back to listen to the quartet records, I was struck by the bass playing. Kermit reminded me of Paul McCartney. Whatever the best rock bass playing is, there’s a way to bring out the song that is not the jazz tradition.
BF: I was more schooled in bebop or something, so he could look to me for that and then I was inspired by his rock thing.
EI: Tell me about meeting Joey Baron.
BF: So then Kermit and I met our wives in Belgium, lived there for a year, came back to New York around the same time. We both lived in New Jersey, we kept doing little gigs here and there. Eventually I met Paul Motian and did my first ECM record, I did that Rambler record, and I’m starting to think about how to make my own band. It seemed like such a miracle that I got those guys together to do that record. They were like these heroes, Kenny Wheeler, and Jerome Harris, who I’d known also from way back in Boston. Did I tell you that story? I guess it’s okay to say this, it’s a little weird. I had a little bit of in and out with ECM, those first records, with Paul and then I went immediately to do record with Jan Garbarek and then they put out this concert that I’d done with Arild Andersen.
EI: You’re shredding on that, by the way.
BF: I haven’t listened to that. I did the solo record which was a difficult birth. and then there was a little conflict, I was playing with Jan Garbarek and I was also playing with Paul, and there was a schedule conflict. I’ll just make it simple, I made the choice to play with Paul instead of Jan Garbarek. I left Jan Garbarek’s band because I wanted to stay with Paul. That was kind of it for ECM for a while. But I was wrong, because then a couple years later I get a message from Manfred, “Maybe we should try something else, what would you think of doing something with Kenny Wheeler,” and I was like, “Oh my God.” I had met him before through Mike Gibbs. That was sort of the spark of what that was to be.
At the time, I was really fired up about Blood Ulmer, I was listening to a lot of Arthur Blythe. There’s this record, Illusions, Arthur Blythe with Blood, and Bob Stewart, and Bobby Battle. I liked this sound with the tuba and stuff.
ECM: This feels like a chance to just do anything I want. This was right around the time that Miles had made his comeback. Al Foster was in the band. I was playing a lot with Mike Stern. So there was a connection to Al there. And Al and Jerome Harris had played together with Sonny Rollins. I wanted Al, Bob Stewart, Jerome Harris, and Kenny. A dream band.
I asked Al and he said, “ECM, I’ve always wanted to do something with them, sounds great,” Al was totally into it, but then something happened and he left me a message at the very last minute saying he wasn’t going to do it. This was just days before I’m supposed to do the record, so I was in a panic, and I needed someone to confide in, so I called Paul, not thinking I was going to ask him to do it, I called up Paul Motian and I said man I’m kind of freaked out, I got this record coming, it was all set, and I just got word from Al he’s not going to do it. And this was during the time that Paul was not doing any sideman stuff, I had heard him say, “No,” so many times, he was so committed to doing his own stuff. I wasn’t asking, I was just flipping out and he was like “You know what, I’ll do it.” And it was like this wave of good vibes, I called up Manfred, he was excited, and everything was back on track.
I remember going into that the studio, I was so terrified, I was setting up my stuff and I remember being down on the floor of my pedals and looking across the floor, and it just looked like this vast expanse, like I was on a giant football field. Since then I’ve been in there a million times and it’s the smaller room! I can’t believe it’s where we did that record. So to have Paul as an ally, his vibe really got me through that.
EI: Well, it’s cool to hear him play those tunes, too. The title song, “Rambler,” to hear Paul Motian play that vibe, it’s so great! Of course he played it with Arlo Guthrie too.
BF: Paul had some tunes like that, too, like “Prairie Avenue Cowboy?” We never recorded it, but he had a couple things like that.
I’m trying to jump over all that happened, maybe Kermit and I weren’t playing so much, but then I kept hearing about this guy Joey Baron. I was hearing, “Joey’s coming back,” it was sort of like Lovano, like a word out on the street. Joey had been in Boston before I was in Boston like when Scofield was there, Lovano knew him, Billy Drewes knew him. lot of people that I knew knew Joey from before. He had moved to California, he was playing with Carmen McRae and doing all this stuff. So I’d just been hearing about him.
And then the way we met, I can’t remember whose recording it was or who all was there, Marc Johnson or Kenny Werner, it was a large group. We did it at Fred Hersch’s recording studio, a lot of people in a small space. It was difficult to hear, and it was just kind of a difficult session. I just remember it being a little chaotic and Joey was there, we just barely met, but there was this moment where I could see him across the room in the drum booth, all this stuff going on, trying to hear each other and just play something decent, this moment where he played a back beat, just at the perfect moment, that just made everything gel together. He heard everything that was going on, there was a space, and it was like right in that perfect spot, and we looked at each other across the room through the glass, and we just smiled at each other and that was the moment, So then we were like, man we got to play, I don’t know if I played something too, but there was a brother thing happened. So soon after that I went over to his apartment and we just played free music for hours. We did that a bunch of times and he wanted to get a gig.
Well, he met somebody that had something to do with the Jewish Guild for the Blind and it’s for kids that have been impaired in some way, that like Joey said have been dealt a difficult hand. So Joey thinks, maybe we can play there, So he goes up into some office and talks to a woman, says, “Do you think we could do a concert for these kids?” She says “I need to know what the music sounds like” so Joey goes up there with a tape recorder with him just playing drums, by himself that he had recorded in his apartment. He had a my In Line record also. He goes in the office and he puts on my record and puts on the tape recorder to play at the same time! He says, “This is kind of what it sounds like,” and the woman says, “that sounds great!” so she gave us the gig.
You got to see Joey in the documentary by Emma Franz, you know it’s really moving to me to remember what it was like cuz we go to this place, a lot of young kids, and Joey’s personality is, all we’re doing is playing completely free but he set it up to bring them into the situation. Like, “now we’re going to play a song that’s about the ocean,” you know he would just describe a scene then we would just start playing, and the kids just reacted to it, it was probably one of the best audiences we ever had. So Joey and I we were really, really hooking up strong.
EI: How did you meet Hank Roberts?
BF: Like 1975 in Boston, he wasn’t even in school, he was cooking in the kitchen at the school, but he was in Mike Gibbs’s band and we met there and then we started playing. I met him after I met Kermit, and then Hank and I started playing a lot, but it was Hank’s thing with a drummer Mark Decker. A close friend of his from Indiana. It was more rehearsing than gigs, that’s for sure. We barely did any. We did a recital at the school.
EI: What was the music like?
BF: All Hank’s stuff. If you hear him now, it’s the same thing with me, basically I was playing the same thing then that I’m playing now. It was just cello guitar and drums. Did I send you that picture, “flute juice”? There was a flute player named Nick Pike that we also knew, Hank and I played with him. I found a poster, it’s Mike Clark, the drummer. When I first moved to NY, it’s Nick playing flute, Mike Clark playing drums. and Tim Landers is a bass player who was also in Boston that went to LA and played with Jean Luc Ponty. But Hank and Nick and I used to play, and Joe Hunt played drums. Do you know who Joe Hunt is?
EI: Well, the George Russell records. But I also heard him more recently, he sounded great.
BF: Yeah! He played with Bill Evans too. It was a thrill to get to play with him, because I knew of all that stuff, and he used to be roommates with Hank actually.
Well, later, when it finally started getting to, “Who am I gonna have for a band?” those guys were the most trusted. Kermit, the way encouraged me with writing my own stuff. If I’m gonna write my own stuff, I gotta have somebody that’s gonna back me up, and all those guys did.
I looked up to them, but they looked up to me. Seems like everybody I play with, maybe I’m in situations where I’m the leader of the band, but that’s kind of bullshit because if I’m going to play with somebody I want to play with somebody that can wipe me out. Everybody I play with is so much better than me. I think that’s why I was talking about like getting that taste, when I first felt what it felt like playing with Gary Burton. You know you get a taste of something, you can’t turn back. in my own bands I always have people that are way better than me. I’m just trying to learn from what they’re doing.
EI: It’s striking when you go back and listen to Lookout for Hope now, that first quartet record. How the band is four individuals who were really kind of unrepentant about what they’re doing, and then the group sound is really in the middle of those four personalities.
BF: In my mind, the way my memory is that it’s more like one sound.
EI: No doubt about it. Thank you, Bill!