Courtesy of Barre Phillips
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH BARRE PHILLIPS
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
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.
BARRE PHILLIPS: Yes.
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
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
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
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.
Steve Swallow is the bassist on record.
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.
You've had a valuable association with avant superhero Peter Brotzmann
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.
Why did you leave New York to make permanent residence in Europe?
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.
Having been in Europe for a considerable length of time, what are the
not so subtle differences between the two shores?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let's touch on your latest for the ECM label, a recording with Paul Bley
and Evan Parker, Sankt Gerold.
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.
As a bassist, what do a Paul Bley and Evan Parker bring to the table?
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.
And so it never gets old?
PHILLIPS: Oh, no, I've got so much work to do that I better be excited
or I am in trouble.
Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and celebrates the 5th of May. Email