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Above, Michael Gibbs in London.  Below, Bill Frisell rehearses with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Photos and article copyright John Watson 2010

Frisell, Gibbs and the orchestral dream

Composer Michael Gibbs and U.S. guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell had a triumphant concert with the great drummer Joey Baron and the BBC Symphony Orchestra during the London Jazz Festival late in  2009, performing some of Gibbs' classic compositions and a specially commissioned  work, Collage For A Day.

They both hope to do more performances together  in the near future, and in the meantime are busy with their own separate projects. At the time of the interview, Michael was looking forward to the release of a new album, Here's A Song For You, which he arranged and conducted, and which features the marvellous singer Norma Winstone with the NDR Big Band from Germany. It's now out on the Fuzzy Moon Records label.

The London Jazz Festival concert was recorded at the Barbican for broadcast on BBC Radio Three, and I spoke to Michael and Bill in the guitarist's dressing room, starting by asking how the joint venture came about.

Michael: 'This particular project started right after my 70th birthday. Bill had been asked by the BBC to do something with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and he asked me to write it. When we met up years ago, in 1975, potential things started happening then. We've done several projects since then. Bill has played a tour with me, we've worked on record dates, he did my 70th birthday party concert.'

Bill: 'I was aware of Michael's music long before he was aware of mine, of course. I first heard his music in the 1960s, and became a big fan way back then. So for me, we're talking about more than 40 years ago. When I first heard his tunes, I thought " What is that sound? Where's that coming from?"

'And then 10 years after that I went to Berklee in Boston as a student and was lucky enough to get him as a teacher. I took all of his classes at Berklee, and played in the student band. Not long after that he asked me to do a tour in England, so for a long time his music has been a big part of my life.

'It's really a dream come true to be able to do this. So much of the way I think about music has come from this association. It didn't all come from Mike, but there's so much in the way I put it together . . . the way I think about harmony and the way the notes fit together, I've learned so much from him, and it's just so infused in my work.'It's a mystery to me what he does with music, but he's inspired me for so long.

'So to have the chance to work with him is just so great. I have these little simple melodies, but he makes things happen! I'm getting all kinds of things in my head when I'm playing, it's whatever is in your imagination. There's no limit to what the possibilities are.'

'I was definitely not outgoing . . .'

Michael: 'It's such a long time since I first heard Bill at Berklee - I vaguely remember you in a class, Bill, it was only when we started working together later . . .

Bill: 'Yeah, in the classes I was definitely not outgoing!'

Michael: 'I had a band every year at Berklee, and some people would ask to play in it, and when they asked I would always say: "Yes, of course". Did you ask to play, Bill?'

Bill: 'Oh yes, that was one of my most aggressive moments! But I think you would have heard me play somewhere, because you would come round to the clubs - there were always these little clubs going on, and I remember you heard me and complimented me on my playing. I thought "OK, I'm going to take this chance", so I called Michael on the phone, and I said "If you want anyone in the school, just in the student band, I'd love to do it." And he said "Oh yes, just come and play".'

I mention that Michael has always written strongly for the guitar - with soloists in earlier times including Chris Spedding (on albums including the live doube LP Just Ahead),  Philip Catherine (on The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra) and John Scofield and Kevin Eubanks as well as Bill (on Big Music) .

Michael: 'You know that on Big Music I've got five guitars: Bill, John Scofield, Kevin Eubanks, Dave Fiuczynski and Duke Levine. Sometimes I had Duke and Dave chomping away, and it's so rhythmic, it's so exciting, and then to put the soloists on top . . . I mean Bill, John and Kevin play the same instrument but they play nothing like each other.

'Three incredibly different musicians, the sound they make. I really liked having five guitars on that album. But I don't think of myself as necessarily writing for the guitar - more for the individual musician.

'I have no technical knowledge of the guitar. I had a banjo once, and I strummed away with two chords and sang along with it, but it never made me really want to play it . . . it was so far removed from the piano that I thought "I'll never bridge that gap". The guitar seems very abstract to me, obviously it's not that way for a player. So I'm not conscious of the technique of the guitar.'

I asked Michael about his approach in writing for a string orchestra, compared to writing for a big band.

Michael: 'I've had a lot of experience of writing for orchestra in films and commercial music. In [Michael's ballad composition] Sweet Rain there are two chords that sound so Hollywood - I know it's syrupy but I love it! Gary Burton took that tune to Stan Getz when he was working with him, which was really fortuitous for me. 'In my first recording of Sweet Rain [on the 1970 Deram album simply called 'Michael Gibbs'], I speeded it up in places, changed the key at the end.

'I heard Bill play it two years ago at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and then recently in Bilbao. It was when I heard him playing it in Bilbao that I thought I must include it in this concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At the Bilbao concert it was so tenderly played, and I realised it would be really appropriate to do it again. 'I was orignally going to do [the Duke Ellington composition] Solitude, but Sweet Rain seemed appropriate. We're hoping to do some more, perhaps on other gigs with other orchestras.

'Actually, every concert is a grand rehearsal for the next one . . .'

(Article copyright John Watson 2010)