So many topics were covered in GP’s September 2009 feature interview with Bill Frisell that we couldn’t fit everything into the magazine. Here, Frisell discusses his longtime musical relationship with veteran jazz composer and drummer Paul Motian, and the almost spooky camaraderie he feels with pedal-steel virtuoso Greg Leisz.
Your performances with the Paul Motion Trio can be truly transcendent. What is so special about your chemistry with Paul?
That’s one of the longest musical relationships that I’ve had with anybody. I started to play with Paul in 1981, and that was a gigantic moment for me. That was one of the first times that someone asked me to be myself. He wasn’t just calling some random guitar player to fill the job of playing a certain way, whereas prior to that I mostly got jobs playing for weddings or whatever. I felt like he really wanted me and my personality, and I’ve always felt that playing with him it was really my music, even though he is the leader of the band. It feels as if it is totally wide open. Getting that call and going over to his house gave me an amazing infusion of confidence. He’d been such a huge inspiration to me for so long. It started there and has never stopped. We were talking earlier about being in the moment, and that’s the way it always is with him. Every single time we play, I never know what’s going to happen. Even though we play the same songs, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the music happening in that moment, and it never happens in the same way twice. He doesn’t travel anymore, but we still play at least a few weeks each year after all this time.
There’s also something quite extraordinary in the way you interact with Greg Leisz.
Greg is one of these guys where when I met him, I talked to him for a long time, and I just had this feeling that we could play together. Then I found out about all these things he played on that I had heard, but I hadn’t connected his name to. Then I called him on the phone and asked him to play on a record and we’ve been playing together ever since then. I don’t know what it is. We’re close to the same age, and we heard so much of the same music while growing up, that there’s this kind of base common denominator that goes back to our childhoods. But then there was a point, like when I was in high school I started getting more into jazz and went off in that direction, and when he was in high school, he got more into country music, and then 30 years later, when we were all grown up, we met and started playing, and it was like a big circle coming around. I feel like he’s filling in all the other side of my brain—all the stuff that I want to be there that I can’t play myself. We don’t have to think or talk about anything, there’s just a real natural way of playing together. Also, a lot of what I play is like imitating singers. When I play a song I’m trying to play the melody the way a singer would do it, and Greg’s done so much working with singers, he knows exactly what to do intuitively. So if I play that way and he plays the way he plays, it just works. When I look at that pedal-steel thing, it doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like everything is backward. Also, he’s left-handed and I’m right-handed, and his birthday is exactly six months apart from mine to the day. His is September 18th and mine’s March 18th. It sounds crazy, but there’s some kind of weird balance thing.
Sometimes when you play, your two parts merge in ways that sound almost like a single instrument.
Yes, that’s what it feels like—it just becomes one thing. I said backing me up before, but that’s not really it. It all becomes one unit somehow. I don’t feel like I have to edit what I do, or leave out anything to leave room for him, and I think it’s the same with him. We each are able to leave the other the space they need. He’s always just coming from the inside of the music.