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

In the age of “one and done,” it seems more common for engineers to work with an artist for a tour and then move on to find new work. Far less common are engineers staying with the same artist for more than a couple of years/tours, with a three-decade working relationship almost unheard of. Yet such is the case of Claudia Engelhart, who’s worked with noted jazz guitarist, composer and arranger Bill Frisell since 1990.

Engelhart started mixing at the age of 18 in San Francisco; at that time in her life, it was both a logical next step and a light bulb turning on. “I grew up in a musical family and played cello for 10 years, starting at age nine,” she explains. “My father is a jazz musician and instrument builder, and my sisters are musicians. I loved music but never wanted to perform on stage. I grew up listening to a lot of music from all over the world. Brazilian music was huge in our house, as well as jazz, so I was exposed to a lot of it.

“In the 1970s there was a jazz club in San Francisco called the Keystone Korner, and my parents would take us to hear everyone that came through town,” she continues. “We were young and listening to Art Blakey and McCoy Tyner and Charlie Haden and Cecil Taylor live – how lucky we were! The sound man, Milton Jeffries, would let us kids sit in the sound booth so we could see better – maybe, subliminally, that was the beginning. Also when I was really young I loved to lay under the piano and listen to my dad play, just to be enveloped by the sound of the piano, and maybe that was early ear training.”

Getting In Gear

Lightning stuck shortly after Engelhart graduated from high school when she journeyed to Brazil, ultimately staying for about a year. For a month of that time, she roomed with two brothers who happened to be live sound engineers. “It was amazing for me – they had reel-to-reel tapes of every live show they mixed, and of everyone I loved in Brazilian music at the time,” she says. “When I returned from Brazil, I realized that I wanted to mix sound.”

Her first move upon her return to San Francisco was to call Jeffries at the Keystone Korner about a possible gig, and he responded by bringing her on for one night a well. Simultaneously she enrolled at the College for Recording Arts, largely to learn about the equipment: “I knew nothing. It was all about the music for me.”

Next she transferred to New York City to take a role at a club called S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil). “Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim were close family friends – my dad built custom metal percussion instruments for Airto, and he lived with us for a time; they were around a lot when I was a kid. It was because of them that I wanted to go on the road – seeing them when they were on tour seemed so romantic to me.

“Eventually, they took me on tour for the first time, in Europe – vans, one-nighters, I have memories of long, brutal travel,” she continues. “I did sound and set up Airto’s percussion, which was very involved. He had a special table my dad built for him, and everything had its place on that table. It was good for me to be with ‘family,’ mixing music I loved, and I got so much great experience with them. They were really well respected out there, and we played festivals like Montreux Jazz and Copenhagen Jazz, along with clubs and concert halls. It was a great way for me to start on the road.”

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“For me at FOH, it’s about getting the music from the stage to the audience as naturally and transparently as possible.” – Claudia Engelhart (Photo by Rudy Royston)

In addition to her work with Frisell, Engelhart’s C.V. (curriculum vitae or resume) is enough to induce envy in even the most jaded engineers. Over the years she’s toured extensively in support of artists such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Ron Carter, Michael Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Dave Holland, John Scofield, Charles Lloyd, Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Tim Berne, Jakob Bro, Marianne Faithfull, Rosanne Cash, Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Kronos Quartet and numerous others. (“I’ve had a great run,” she understates.)

Beautiful Collaboration

The relationship with Frisell is special, though. “Working with Bill has been a close and deep relationship; I consider him one of my best friends,” she says. “He’s loyal, trusting, kind, generous, supportive, understanding – not to mention that he’s a brilliant musician and I love his music. He surrounds himself with the nicest people, never any drama or ego trips in his bands. And if I have to be away on the road I want to be with people I like. Plus we all have a lot of fun together!” (Go here to read Frisell’s thoughts on working with Engelhart.)

A Frisell show is, indeed, a special occasion; as an audience member for more than 15 performances in venues of different types and sizes, I’ve always been pleased and surprised by the newness he and his band de jour bring to each performance. Usually Engelhart is on the mix; the difference when she’s not at the console is palpable. I’ve told friends that I go to a Frisell performance as much to hear Claudia mix as I do to hear Frisell play. What is it about her mix that’s so special? The only way to begin to know is to ask, so I did.

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