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Sharing The Long Road: The Career Of Claudia Engelhart & Inside Her Unique Partnership With Artist Bill Frisell

By Phil Garfinkel July 18, 2019

Claudia Engelhart and Bill Frisell prior to a recent gig in their 30th year of collaboration. (Photo by Rudy Royston)

Bill Frisell On A Timeless Collaboration

There’s a moment in Emma Franz’ film “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” where the camera is suddenly focused on engineer Claudia Engelhart, and she speaks with respect and conviction about working with him. Because of their long working relationship, I reached out to Bill, who was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

Phil Garfinkel: It’s rare these days for an artist and engineer to work together for so long. What is it about Claudia and her skills that keep you working together?

Bill Frisell: It’s been a long time now. We’re friends. Claudia and I have traveled all over the world together. We met for the first time at the old Knitting Factory when she did sound for John Zorn’s Naked City. Right away things sounded better. She made it easier for us to just play. Soon after that I asked her to work with me, and we’ve been together ever since.

Claudia comes from a musical family. She grew up around musicians and has been listening her whole life. She listens. That’s the most important thing for me. Her attention is on the music 100 percent of the time. She’s inside it. I can trust that what I’m hearing on stage is what gets out to the audience. She’s in the band.

It’s such a luxury after all this time to be able show up for a gig and just start playing. I’m not a good talker; when Claudia is there I don’t have to try to explain anything to anyone. She removes all the obstacles so the musicians can just get to it. On the rare occasions when she’s not there I realize how spoiled I’ve become.

PG: Your shows are all so different and eclectic. Not just the musicians and approach, but the material you’re playing changes from night to night (and sometimes from set to set on the same night). Is there anything special you do to prepare Claudia for what the night will be?

BF: She has a deep understanding, appreciation, and love for all music. She’s worked in so many different situations with so many different people. Anything I might come up with, any direction I might want to take, she’s there. She stays “in the moment.”

The music is always changing, and when it does, Claudia is right there with it. Ready for anything. I don’t think there’s much I could do at this point that would surprise her. I’ll keep trying!

PG: Do the two of you sit down and discuss a show either before or after?

BF: Not in any “formal” sense. We really don’t need to talk about this stuff much anymore, or never really did. The intuitive connection was there from the beginning and after all this time it’s only gotten stronger and stronger.

We’ve been doing it for so long now, there’s not much to say before the gig. It’s usually just a matter of hoping there’s enough time (which is not always the case) and staying out of the way so Claudia can get things set up and ready. She listens to the room. She clears the way so that we can just play. Then after the gig there’s always the challenge of getting packed up and back to the hotel in time to hopefully get enough rest to make it to the next one.

It’s the same with the musicians I play with. I never really feel comfortable trying to explain the music. The “talking” or “discussion” goes on during making of the music itself. Claudia is right there with this. Like I said before, she’s in the band.

PG: There seems to be a lot of trust between the two of you. How does trust play into the working and personal relationship?

BF: Trust. The music is not going to happen if there is not trust. My hope is that every moment can be one of discovery. It’s not a contest. There’s no right or wrong. We have to feel safe to jump off into the unknown and know that we all have each other’s backs. Watch out for one another. It’s OK to make mistakes. That’s where the real stuff happens. That’s how we learn and grow. Listening. Trust. That’s the stuff.

One other thing I might mention; Claudia has developed friendships and earned the respect of folks all over the world. Early on – I can’t remember when she said it – but I think she may have even had a business card printed up. She referred to herself as a “Soundman Chick.” There’s humor in that, right?

But when you think about it for a second, it gets deeper, more serious. It’s not exactly a joke. She’s dealing with a world dominated by men. We show up at the venue and are usually greeted by a sound crew of men. Sometimes she has to deal with some attitude, some preconceptions. Not always, but it happens. We’ve still got a long way to go. Claudia is strong. She’s a pioneer. I’m so lucky – thanks Claudia!

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About Phil

Phil Garfinkel
Phil Garfinkel

Phil Garfinkel lives in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Among the many highlights of his audio experiences, hearing Claudia Engelhart mix Bill Frisell at “Jazz at Lincoln Center” is high on his personal Top 10 list.
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