Courtesy of Barre Phillips

ECM Records



I am in awe of Barre Phillips. And anyone who can play the bass like he can, we should all get in line to sit beside them hoping that some of that will rub off on us. So closely associated with the success that ECM has had through the years, Phillips has aged well musically. I am honored to bring to you (perhaps by reading this, some of what he has will rub off on you), Mr. Barre Phillips, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

BARRE PHILLIPS: I grew up playing jazz, starting with Dixieland and classical music and I was always so excited playing those music, I kind of played my own thing. At the end of the Fifties, when Ornette Coleman came on the scene and said that that is what we're supposed to me doing, is playing our own thing and that was the message for me.

FJ: So Ornette was pivotal in your early development?

BARRE PHILLIPS: Yes, it wasn't so much the music, which I loved very much. It wasn't a big discovery, the music itself. It was what he was talking. It was what he was saying with his words when you would talk with Ornette because I met Ornette in 1958, I mean, personally. It was actually four years later when I re-met him after he had made all those initial records and everything. I met him again and he gave me the message and I was ready for it (laughing).

FJ: What was the message?

BARRE PHILLIPS: The message was, well, in detail, as far as antidotes go, Fred, he came and sat in with a band that I was playing with out in California. He had been in New York for about four years at that time. He was out on the West Coast again. I was still on the West Coast and he sat in with us on a friendly basis. We were just playing standards and what was acceptable in the jazz repertoire at the time and he said, "Well, you guys played great. How come you're playing this school music? Why don't you play your own music?" And I was ready for the message.

FJ: Why did you decide to pick up the bass?

BARRE PHILLIPS: It's a long story, Fred. Actually, the bass chose me. I have to say it like that. I started at thirteen years old in public school, in junior high school. When they were going around looking for people to fill up the orchestra and they said the bass, I had a vision and my hand just flew up and that's how I started playing the bass.

FJ: A vision?

BARRE PHILLIPS: The vision I had, if you are interested, the vision was I saw my name on a theater marquee. It was so strong that my hand just automatically flew up and I saw the actual, real life theater marquee in 1980 in Milan, in Italy. I'd saved that memory all those years, not looking for it, but it was there (laughing).

FJ: How have you made use of your degree in Spanish?

BARRE PHILLIPS: It's been very useful in, not necessarily the Spanish because I live in France, but to have studied a lot of Spanish and Italian, it made it really easy for me to learn French, which I didn't study in school (laughing). But I think it's more the having been in university and working on communications. That has been a great background for me. It has to do with the twenty-five years ago, for the first time, somebody asked me to teach a workshop. I was already an improviser and basically, or at least at that time, at least half of my public performance was free improvised music. Today it is much closer to a hundred percent is free improvised music. So the question of what's going on, now how does an education when at you're at the university and you are trying to learn, they are trying to teach you how to think and whatever university you're at, it's in some kind of a mold. It's in some kind of a form because you have to try and teach things. But in language, I was working in philology and after, because I did a couple of years of graduate work after my bachelor's in philology and you try and learn how to piece together how people communicate to each other and I was very much into that in the raw materials, but with musical sounds rather than language sounds. And so it's a matter of finding the words that try to define what's going on in feeling and communication when this music is happening, when this improvised music is happening. And so I've been working on that for twenty-five years now. I haven't written a book yet, but since I'm taking a sabbatical next year to start writing on the book. It'll get there one day.

FJ: At the close of 1968, you recorded a notable work entitled Journal Violone, recorded in a church.


FJ: It has gained quite an underground cult following through the years.

BARRE PHILLIPS: Really? Well, at the time of the original recording, which was recorded in 1968, I didn't even know I was recording for an album, so what you have there are my musings as it were, my musings and playings just to put what I could play on the double bass down on tape. That was the original objective and the man, who was the owner of Opus One and he had proposed this project to me. Then he said after that, "I want to make a record out of it. This is fantastic. I want to make a record out of this." Then I had to get my head around from the position of "I'm just doing this because this guy wants to hear what you can play on a bass because he's a friend" and get into this no, he wants to make an album. I have to get my head into the thing so I can do that and I can allow this to come out because I don't know if it is any good or not or whatever or what it is. And that took me quite a few months in working on that. It is kind of a historical record, Fred. It is the first solo record that was ever recorded of free music. I didn't know that at the time. I found that out three or four years after the album came out.

FJ: Can the bass, as a solo instrument, be appealing enough to hold the interests of today's audiences for any significant length of time?

BARRE PHILLIPS: To the general public, well, there are guys who do that for the general public. You don't see them on the top forty, so you have got this whole problem of defining what is general public. But a concert going public of classical music, there are soloists in classical music like Duncan McTier, an Englishman, and others, who are so fantastic that they have a solo career with the big orchestras and in the big venues, not as much as the big violin players or Rostropovich (Mstislav Rostropovich), but they have been able to earn a much more of a decent living as a solo bassist in the classical realm. You'll find the same thing for the jazz public. In terms of a pop public, how many people know that Sting is a bass player? Is it dead already in the techno scene with bass and drums. It is not anybody. It is not some great player playing the bass and is playing this fantastic stuff. It is just some workmen doing the things.

FJ: Let's touch on your relationship with Manfred Eicher.

BARRE PHILLIPS: I met Manfred Eicher in 1969 or '70. I actually met him before ECM was created. We met. He was a bass player playing in a jazz group at a club in Berlin. We just went to the club after the concert and met the guys in the band and Manfred and I might have talked for two minutes or something. A few years later, I was recording with Dave Holland in German radio, a big project, which turned out to be the record, Conflagration (Dawn), which is one of the old Trio records from our old stuff from the early Seventies. Anyway, Manfred came up and said, "Hi, how are you guys doing? Remember me?" "Oh, yeah, how you doing man?" And he proposed to us to record the duo record, which is Dave Holland and I called Music for Two Basses (ECM), which is about the third record, second or third record on the ECM label. And then I knew he had a record company and I actually didn't go back and proposed that we had to record until some years later, in pretty much 1975 and then we recorded in Early '76, which was the record, Mountainscapes.

FJ: It has been a fertile partnership that has lasted well over a quarter of a century.

BARRE PHILLIPS: Absolutely, for me. And I think since we are still good friends and talk to each other (laughing), it must be OK with Manfred also, yeah.

FJ: He must be an asset in the studio having been a bass player himself?

BARRE PHILLIPS: Well, he has, I wouldn't just say helped a lot of other interesting bass players along the way, which is normal, but he also likes guitar players. He has record a lot of guitar music through the years. What is so fantastic about Manfred Eicher is his integrity to himself. He started this label, found the backers so he could start, all on doing what his version of what a record company should be and not his version of how to make a lot of money.

FJ: A forgotten theme, it seems, these days when money has become a drug.

BARRE PHILLIPS: The money is there. To keep alive, you have to keep growing. I'm sure that there is money that flows through that thing, but he's recorded so many records like, I don't earn money for ECM overall. I must be on sixteen, seventeen, maybe eighteen albums for ECM through the years, whether they're my records or collaborating with somebody else. I'm not making money for ECM, but Manfred Eicher has been supporting my music and my playing all these years by recording me. That is what I mean by supporting, not sending me a monthly check, I don't mean that. By recording my music, he's been supporting me on what I do, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, you don't see that happening in the States.

FJ: You appeared on a posthumous GM Recording's release of Eric Dolphy's entitled Vintage Dolphy.

BARRE PHILLIPS: That was not Eric Dolphy came and asked me, "Can you play?" It was a matter of circumstance in that I was hired by Gunter Schuller to participate in his contemporary music series in New York City, when I finally got to New York City in the early Sixties and Dolphy was on the gig. Well, our playing together was involved of playing in a medium sized orchestra. He played a solo piece of abstractions and on that record, the other piece that's on there was an encore piece for the concert. The tapes that are on that Vintage Dolphy are all stuff that was never made for record, but recordings that were made in clubs and copies of concerts that were done by Gunter Schuller.

FJ: What prompted you to make your way into New York? And was it all you had anticipated?

BARRE PHILLIPS: After I re-met Ornette and he said, "Why don't you make your own music?" I knew that I had to go to New York because that's where it was all happening. Compared to what it is today, first of all, the economics were very different. You could still be poor in New York. You could find, I never paid more than a hundred dollars a month for rent, for example, and play at a dumb gig at a club for ten bucks. So you could earn a living as a musician if you could play and you weren't too weird. You could earn a living as a musician, pay your rent, even have a family, and be poor, but you could get by. You can't do that anymore. It is a huge difference now. You've got to have a thousand or twelve hundred dollars a month and a dumb gig at a club is twenty-five bucks and not ten anymore. Things haven't gone up in the wages the way they've gone up in the costs. So there was a lot of people, it was a historical moment in New York and the contemporary music scene, there were an enormous amount of concerts in Town Hall. There was a whole happening scene that was still going on. I got to New York in 1962. I am talking about '62, '63, '64. I met Don Ellis very quickly. He was doing a lot of experimental music and an experimental workshop every week. It was a very open situation. I did my first trials with abstract composing and stuff in those workshops. We were playing at home all the time with all kinds of different people. There was very little work for this new music. There was very little work for us. In 1965, when I was playing with Archie Shepp in New Thing at Newport, was the first time that there was some free music at the Newport Jazz Festival, which was the official jazz festival at the time. There wasn't nearly as many festivals in the Sixties as there are now today. But Newport had been going on and in 1964, I traveled to Europe for the first time in the George Russell Sextet, which was avant-garde jazz. It was the first year that there had been any American avant-garde jazz come over to Europe in an official tour, doing the big festivals and stuff. So it was a historical moment and I was there. I was a young bass player and I guess the people liked the way I played. I toured Europe in '65 with the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which was the old Free Fall trio.

FJ: Steve Swallow is the bassist on record.

BARRE PHILLIPS: Well, I played with Giuffre just after that and toured Europe with him. It was fantastic. He was a real searcher for how to make music and he found a lot of stuff. He lived just ten minutes away by foot, down the street from me and I was over there every possible minute over two years time when I wasn't working or doing something else because he basically had no work at the time. He was very available. Free Fall didn't sell. Free Fall was on Columbia Records (reissued on Columbia/Legacy), which Jimmy Giuffre had access to from his older music, from his older standard jazz stuff. But since it didn't sell, it didn't do anything on the market, he lost his contract and he lost all his connections. He went through some years of difficult financial times not earning any money. That is the Jimmy Giuffre story. Anyway, he was an extremely creative man, very open to things, and I learned by osmosis playing with him an awful lot. They just released, here in Europe, a recording of a live concert that we did in 1965 in Paris. It was very interesting for me to listen to that music from thirty-five years ago.

FJ: You've had a valuable association with avant superhero Peter Brotzmann as well.

BARRE PHILLIPS: Yes, Peter, we've known each other from when I first started living in Europe at the end of the Sixties. We've never made a band together, but there is the FMP recording of concert music in trio with Gunter Sommer. There might be some old things from the old days with these big collective groups, but in terms of actually playing together, there is only one recording.

FJ: Why did you leave New York to make permanent residence in Europe?

BARRE PHILLIPS: I read into some information on London and I came to London and I was going to stay for two months and do a little research completely outside the music scene. It was at the end of a tour with a guitar player and so I got to London after the tour and I'm going to stay for two months and I start meeting all these musicians. I met all the guys from the Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, the drummer, and Trevor Watts. I met all those guys right away and they said, "Oh, great. A bass player. We've haven't had a bass player in years." And so I started playing with them while I was doing my thing and that led to things like Marion Brown calling me from Paris and we come and play. We knew each other from New York and from being around Shepp and Coltrane. I started getting all these work propositions and I kept calling back to New York saying that I was going to stay for another month, keep my apartment, I'm coming, I'm coming. So I didn't leave New York. I came over here for something else entirely and then I got a proposition to play in a movie and do the score for a French movie. I wasn't about to go back to New York. And one thing just kept leading to another where the creative work over here in Europe that was proposed to me and that I accepted and did, replaced the professional work that I was doing in New York City.

FJ: Having been in Europe for a considerable length of time, what are the not so subtle differences between the two shores?

BARRE PHILLIPS: Well, there are two main, big differences. One is funding. All over Europe, from country to country, it is different and from region to region inside the country, it is different, but there is public money for art, for creative art, for new art. There is public money for a lot of other kinds of art like keeping up the old art, keeping the museums together and all that and the orchestras alive and everything. There is a lot of public money. That is one big differences. The other big difference, we are talking in the European union now, which is like central, the center of Europe, ten or eleven or twelve countries that you could stick the whole thing in the United States with no problem at all and there is still a lot of United States left over. The country of France is the same size and population as California. So you have all these markets in a small geographical area, compared to what you have in the States. So every country has got its own national market and its own regional markets inside and when you multiply that by ten, plus you look at a climate, which is helped by public money, there is just a lot more opportunities to perform new music that has no commercial value. There is quite a few of us over here that are living as improvising musicians, that is to say that we can have a family and a home and keep warm and healthy and earn enough money to live that way. Nobody is getting rich. That's for sure, but you can figure out how to do this to exist. I eat a good dinner every night.

FJ: Joe Maneri, whom you collaborated with on an impressive ECM title, Tales of Rohnlief, made reference that he is practically a ghost in the States, yet when he travels to superstar, he is given a hero's welcome. Is it just because as a culture, we are immature? After all, it wasn't so long ago we celebrated our bi-centennial.

BARRE PHILLIPS: No, I don't think it has got to do with that. I think today, things are changing so much in society that these cultural background things are getting erased very quickly and everybody is getting pretty much on the same footing. I think the big difference is the structures. Historically in America, contemporary art has to be a produce for it to exist. Now, when you look at it on the music scene and they take contemporary classical music, how many contemporary composers are there that lives from their compositions in the United States? There is John Adams. Almost everyone that I know in the States has a teaching job. I'm not against teaching jobs. Don't get me wrong, but the teaching job, is it there to keep you alive or is it there because you really want to be a teacher and play a little bit or would you really want to play all the time but you have to teach? These questions that are out there, whereas, here in Europe, it is possible to live another way, to take the risk and go all the way and figure out how to keep a low enough economic profile that you can live with what is there, which is impossible to do in the States now. I mean to have a normal life. Young guys can still do it, get by and do their thing, but by the time they're thirty, they're burned out. They just can't make it anymore. I'm just doing it. I've been doing it since I was twenty-five. I've been doing it for over forty years. So there is that and there is the infrastructure. There are all these institutional or partially institutional venues to play in, that do programming and have budgets to pay people. For this music (Tales of Rohnlief), we go out with Joe Maneri, Joe and Mat (Mat Maneri) and I did a tour last June in the States and half of the time, you are playing for the door and the other half of the time, the fee is so low that they can't afford to pay for your hotel or your transportation. It is a real problem of how can you even go out and give this music to the public and not earn any money. How can you do it without investing in it?

FJ: It never ceases to puzzle me how you can ask an important artist to play for the door.

BARRE PHILLIPS: Yeah, but who is going to pay for it if it is not for the door? Most of the people who are putting the energy to organize these events, find a place to do it, even if it is in their own house, put out the communications, the little bit of investment, or if you want to do a good job, advertising, do all that work for the newspapers and the radios so there is a place, there is a concert, there are people coming and people can't play more than ten bucks. That is already asking a lot. Ten bucks head for fifty people, I am sorry, Fred, that is not going to get it. That will maybe take care of one musician and the organizer, not at all. Sure, there are exceptions. There are festivals that go on where they get it together. But it is the everyday bottom line stuff that is really hard and really separates the men from the boys. It is the same thing with recording. With recording in the States, you either make it big or you don't make it. You either sell a lot or you are out. There isn't any ECM in the United States of being able to do something of whether you like the music or not. What Manfred has done is incredible.

FJ: It would surprise many of his recent followers, but Bob James was actually an improviser at one time, and you were the bassist on record for that ESP date, Explosions.

BARRE PHILLIPS: That's right. It was very interesting. He was a wonderful jazz piano player. He probably still is. I haven't seen Bob in years! I would love to see this guy after all these years. He was accompanying Sarah Vaughan at the time. He had the gig as the pianist in Sarah Vaughan's Trio when we record that. But he was from Ann Arbor, Michigan and the University of Michigan and hanging out in the music department at that time were the likes of Robert Ashley, who was a young electronic guy in the very early Sixties. He was very interested by all that. I don't remember exactly how we met in New York, but we met and got along and we had this same background of jazz and contemporary music and classical music, which drew a parallel to our lives and he put it together to do this record, to do the recording and so we did it in one day. Actually, when we had to mix that record and master it, he was on the road with Sarah Vaughan and I did the mix and master. It was the first time ever that I did that kind of stuff, to mix a record.

FJ: Let's touch on your latest for the ECM label, a recording with Paul Bley and Evan Parker, Sankt Gerold.

BARRE PHILLIPS: I've been playing on and off with Evan Parker since 1967. Paul, I met in New York and played with him for a couple of months in 1962. And then through the years until today, it is on and off. Sometimes he calls me and sometimes I call him and we do a little tour together or just the one off gig and so we've known each other for years and years and with Evan, it is the same thing, but they had never played together. They had never even met. I was the middleman, which is a good role for the bass player. The project was put together by ECM, by Steve Lake. He is a producer for ECM. It was Steve Lake's idea and Steve, knowing very well that I knew quite well and had played with both guys so at least there is somebody that they know and had the imagination of what that combination of musicians could do, which for my money, we did. I think those are beautiful records.

FJ: As a bassist, what do a Paul Bley and Evan Parker bring to the table?

BARRE PHILLIPS: Enormous lyricism and melodic content, harmonic propositions, lots of human warmth and a really, a lot of great musical experience, in terms of building music together. It is very pleasurable because they are such great musicians and improvisers. All that music is all improvised music. They are such great improvisers that hey, we can just go anywhere and do anything.

FJ: And so it never gets old?

BARRE PHILLIPS: Oh, no, I've got so much work to do that I better be excited or I am in trouble.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and celebrates the 5th of May. Email Him.