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Bill Frisell On His New Trio Album, Missing Hal Willner & How COVID-19 Robbed Jazz Of Its Rapport

Bill Frisell Trio

Photo by Monica Jane Frisell

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Bill Frisell On His New Trio Album, Missing Hal Willner & How COVID-19 Robbed Jazz Of Its Rapport

'Valentine' is a belated document of the guitarist's chemistry with two old associates

GRAMMYs/Aug 10, 2020 - 08:27 pm

After months of zero live music, Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston reunited in June — while socially distanced on a Kensington, Brooklyn, porch. (At least one Yo La Tengo member bore witness.) Being able to jam in public was a relief to the 69-year-old, who admits to being stuck in his own head during quarantine. But there was a slightly awkward moment when they put down their instruments.

"It was like, ‘'Shit! This is really weird. We're not supposed to touch each other?'" the guitarist tells GRAMMY.com from his home — not far from that makeshift stage — on a sticky late-July morning. "At every single gig we ever play, when we finish, it's a natural reaction that we hug each other. We grab each other. That was just one little strange moment, but basically, it felt so good to play."

Frisell is stumping for his new album Valentine, which arrives August 14. (It's something like his 40th release as a leader, depending on how you count.) The album captures his chemistry with Morgan and Royston, both of whom have been around for years — the former with greats like guitarist Jakob Bro, drummer Paul Motian and pianist Kenny Werner; the latter with altoist Jim Snidero, tenorist Fred Hess and trumpeter Ron Miles. Both have toured with Frisell over the past three.

"This album is all about Rudy and Thomas and the musical relationship I have with them," Frisell said in Valentine's press bio. "There was no evidence of it, so I really wanted to have a document of it, if only to show that it’s real and not this magical thing that I've imagined in my fantasies."

The trio mixes Frisell originals with covers from the Great American Songbook ("What the World Needs Now is Love") and the public domain ("Wagon Wheels"). Valentine concludes with a luminous version of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," which — in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain — contains ever more gravity in 2020.

GRAMMY.com caught up with Frisell to discuss his emotional state in quarantine, working with Morgan and Royston, losing his friends Hal Willner and Lee Konitz to COVID-19 and how the socially distanced show came about.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Are you quarantining in New York City?

Yeah, in Brooklyn. I don’t want to complain because I’m really lucky. We have a house pretty far out into Brooklyn where there's trees and space and stuff. I'm lucky to have this house with all my stuff in it. But this is a trip.

For as long as I can remember — I think even before I can remember, even thinking about my mother singing in the house when I was really small — there was some kind of way of interacting with music with other people.

Just about every single day of my life, that’s been the whole deal, up until March 8 — I guess that was when I came back from tour — and then, a couple of days later, everything just shut down. So it’s really strange to be in my own head all the time.

You, Thomas and Rudy have been around a long time. How did those guys come into your sphere?

Rudy's from Denver, where I grew up. I didn’t know him way back then. I'm not sure if you’re familiar with Ron Miles, the trumpet player? I have a long, long relationship with him. He’s also from Denver. The very first time I met Ron, I think it was 1993. I went to Denver and met [him] and did a gig and Rudy was the drummer. I was like, "Oh, man! This guy’s amazing."

That was the beginning of this incredible relationship with Ron, and that’s where I met Rudy. But at the time, Rudy was teaching public school and he really wasn’t into traveling or going out on the road and all that. We played a couple of times [then], but probably 10 or 15 years ago he moved to New York and really changed up his lifestyle. He really wanted to play and go out. So that’s when we really started playing a lot in lots of different circumstances.

Thomas I met in a sort of an on-and-off here-and-there [fashion] being in New York. My friend Joey Baron, the drummer, introduced us. I think he might have still been a student when we first met. We kept running into each other and I’d hear him play in different contexts. I really became a fan. Eventually, we did a rehearsal with Joey Baron, and then there was a session with Kenny Wollesen.

What really got it going strong was the last album I did with Paul Motian before he passed away. Thomas had been playing a lot with Paul and I had a 30-year relationship with Paul. Paul loved him and we did this album together with Petra Haden [2011’s The Windmills of Your Mind]. That was where it was like, "OK, now, this is it. He’s my brother for life."

Somewhere soon after that, Rudy came into the picture. With that, one thing led to another and here we are. We played in all kinds of different combinations and also as a trio a lot for the last few years, but we didn’t have an album. So it just seemed like time to get that [on record] — I wanted to have evidence of this special group.

Speaking of Motian, Valentine’s press bio cites Bill Evans Trio's Sunday at the Village Vanguard as a spiritual antecedent. What about that album speaks to you?

Oh, man. It’s huge. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like… you think of some music that you can almost start taking for granted, maybe. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to put it, but you hear it so much.

Like, think of Louis Armstrong. What if you had never heard that music before and it’s 1927, you walked into a club and heard that. I can't imagine what that would have done to your brain! I think the Bill Evans Trio had some of that. Of course, it’s coming from the whole history, but it made a new blueprint for what folks could do.

When I was in high school, one of the very first jazz — if you want to use that word — concerts I went to was Charles Lloyd. This is January of 1969. The band was Keith Jarrett on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Paul Motian was playing drums.

That right there was one of those moments for me. Hearing Paul for real, in real life, at that point in my life — I would have never imagined that some years later he'd be calling me up on the phone and that Charles Lloyd would be calling me up on the phone and I’d be actually playing with these people. Sometimes it feels like I'm dreaming or something.

You mentioned "the physical mathematics of a trio." "There's so much strength in it — it can lean to one side, but it will stay up," you said. But it's not like any three musicians sound great together, so how would a bad trio make this geometry fail?

[Laughs.] If something goes wrong, it's maybe because one of the pieces is not present. That's the whole thing: listening. If everyone is listening, I feel like nothing can really go wrong, whether it’s a duo or a trio or an orchestra. For me, it works best when my attention is away from myself and it’s focused on the whole picture, focused on the other guys in the band.

When there’s three guys and everyone is really focused on what the group is doing — not just their own self — it’s just the most amazing feeling. And then you have this trust when you take your mind off your own little world. That's what's weird about right now, right? Everyone's sitting at home by themselves in their own minds. That's what's making me a little nuts.

But what I'm saying is, where the music really takes off for me is when I don't need to think about what I’m doing. I just need to be in the space where the music is happening. Then you can really take risks. You know, I was just talking about dreaming. When you're dreaming that you can fly or you come to a big chasm in the earth and you want to jump in and find out what’s in there — in the music, you can do that if you're with folks you know will rescue you.

Bill Frisell in 1995
Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images

On Harmony, you interpreted songs ranging from Pete Seeger to Lerner and Loewe. On Valentine, you draw from a similar well — there's a Hal David and Burt Bacharach song sharing space with a traditional hymn. To you, how does American folk music connect to the Great American Songbook?

I've always had a problem with how we put [them in separate categories]. I know we need words to describe things and we have to talk about the music, but when we put these labels and names on it it always has the effect of making it smaller than what it really is. To me, they're all part of one thing, whether it’s Beethoven or Monk or Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix or Morton Feldman. It's all music and it all fits together in my imagination.

I think as human beings, when you’re really immersed in the music, it takes you to a place where you’re not thinking about what it's called and all that stuff. For me, it’s a big ocean of melodies and it can all coexist.

You wrote "Hour Glass" for a performance of Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" staged by the late Hal Willner. Tell me about your relationship with Hal.

Boy, that was fairly early in this whole ordeal that we’re going through. He touched on so much. I met him soon after I moved to New York — I guess it was 1980. That’s a 40-year relationship. I've tried to make a list of all the things I've done with him and it’s dozens and dozens of albums and soundtracks and projects that we did together. It's really almost too much to [list]; we could go on for a few hours of that.

He was huge in my life as a friend and he had such an impact on my music. He gave me so many chances. That's what I’m talking about with a group — when you have trust where you can really take chances, that's where you learn. It seems like in just about everything I did with him, he would set me up in a situation where I wasn’t quite sure. It was always a little bit into the unknown. He had some kind of a trust in me that I didn't realize I had in myself.

He would give me an opportunity and I’m like, "Wow! I don't know if I could do that," but he would just sort of nudge me through the door and I'd deal with it and climb out having learned something new. It was like that for the whole of that 40-year period and it was still going on. I just talked to him a couple of weeks before he passed away and he had all kinds of ideas for the things we were going to be doing.

I keep having those moments: "Oh, I've got to call Hal and tell him about this or that," and I can’t do it now. So that's been really rough. It really made this situation real, just having it that close. Also, Lee Konitz I was close with. He was in his nineties, but still. People are dying from this stuff.

"Levees" and "Electricity" are tied to the director Bill Morrison — the former made it into 2014's The Great Flood and the other was cut from a different film. I’m not familiar with Morrison's films, but it looks like they dovetail with jazz and the avant-garde.

It goes back to the Village Vanguard again. Early in the time when I started to play there in the late 1980s, Bill Morrison was basically a dishwasher at the Village Vanguard. I knew him that way. At some point, he said, "You know, I make these films," and he wanted to use some of my music. That's how we connected.

He's deep in the music and that's how I knew him from the beginning, but I didn't even know he made films. One thing led to another and we’ve done quite a few things together at this point and planned more things in the future.

You should check out his stuff. What he does is really like nothing I've ever seen before. In all his films, music is a huge part of it. It’s hard sometimes to even separate. The music and the film become one thing in what he does.

About "We Shall Overcome," you said "I'm going to play it until there's no need anymore." Which is kind of beautiful since you play it instrumentally without words to convey the message. Is there righteous power in that song's melody and composition alone?

Oh, yeah, yeah. Definitely. When I'm playing that song or so many other songs, I might not even know all the words. I don't know all the words to all the songs that I play that have words. But the human voice has so much to do with how I play a melody. I'm hearing the sound of a voice in my head while I’m playing my guitar. Or, you know, I’m hearing the words in my head. So it gives you a lot to draw from when you’re playing the song.

I was quoted as saying "I'm going to play that song until it doesn't need to be played anymore," but I realized I’m afraid there may not be a time… I think that song is always going to be necessary. It’s just part of what we have to keep doing. It'd be great if we didn't need to say those things, but I think it's just part of the struggle [that] continues.

There are so many songs that are relevant every single day — "What the World Needs Now is Love," "We Shall Overcome," "A Change is Gonna Come," "The Times They Are A-Changin’," or "Masters of War," unfortunately. "Hard Times," which was written 150 years ago. All those songs are always relevant, so you have to just keep playing them.

Especially right now, as the George Floyd protests persist.

[Softly] Yeah. Yeah.

You, Thomas and Rudy recently played on a Brooklyn porch while socially distanced. What was that like?

That was incredible! That was the first so-called gig I've had in months and months. It was a relief to finally be with people, playing. Being with my friends.

A friend of ours, Derek Nievergelt, who lives not far from me, he's a bass player and he’ll just go out and start playing on his porch with guys. Thomas lives not far from where I do, too, in Brooklyn. It was just a chance to play. It was spur-of-the-moment. We didn't really know for sure if we were going to play until the night before, knowing that the weather was going to be OK.

But I hope we can do more of that. It’s still going to be a while before [shows can proceed normally]. Actually, in a couple of weeks, we’re going to play at the Village Vanguard, but not with an audience. You know, it’ll be streamed the week after next, I think. I’m looking forward to that.

It was lovely chatting with you, Bill.

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy and all that stuff we’ve been saying. I think we’re going to get through this. Not just the virus, but everything that’s going on. It’s a pretty intense time right now, but I still think we’re going to come out better in the end.

Read More: Gary Burton's Jazz Journey

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards