The Marx Brothers' old studio was cluttered with infernal engines and dastardly contraptions.
These exotically named instruments — the Cloud Chamber Bowls, the Harmonic Canon, the Chromelodeon and a bass marimba as big as a railway sleeper — sprang from the imagination and craftsman's hands of the composer, Harry Partch.
Now they were to provide the accompaniment for a new version of "Weird Nightmare" which was to be featured on Hal Wilner's record of music by Charles Mingus.
I was in a vocal booth, clinging to the key of D minor as minute fractions of a microtonal scale floated by in a Balinese cloud. They were attempting to drag my ear all the way west to Java.
We arrived at the bridge of the song. A small horn section entered but it was upon a progression of consonant guitar chords that my voice landed with some relief.
This is how I first met Bill Frisell.
It should have been no surprise that he would be involved in an adventure where the inventions of two great American artists collided, but until then I had only known him from his recordings.
In years to come, whether he was investigating the music of Monk with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard or recording in the company of Nashville's finest string band players or responding to the drumming of Jim Keltner which might be the rock'n'rhumba equivalent of being driven along by Elvin Jones — there was always that surprise hidden within Bill's instantly recognizable instrumental voice.
Even when he ventures out into the "Far Side," Bill Frisell is always an American folk musician. That is, he works with all the music made by American folk.
In 1995, I called Bill in Seattle from London to discuss his appearance at the festival I was directing. At first, I thought the operator might have mistakenly connected me to the home of the actor James Stewart.
This vocal resemblance actually goes a little deeper than coincidence.
Listen to the Frisell guitar phrasing and you will often hear a familiar but charming opening statement, an unexpected hesitation, and then the proposal of an entirely improbable angle to the first thought, followed by a burst of dizzying inspiration.
However modern he sounds, there is always some old-world courtesy in his playing.
Bill arrived for his "solo" concert in London with a trio of guitar, Chinese violin and trumpet. Later in the season, we played a two-man concert taking in his transcriptions of my songs, Lerner and Loewe's "Gigi" and our sole co-composition to date, "Deep Dead Blue."
It is always a joy to share the stage with Bill, whether at a song festival in an old Krups armaments factory in Germany or onstage at the Apollo Theater, Harlem, playing Harold Arlen's "If I Only Had a Brain" on a television show.
Bill's good humor and tact almost managed to save an appallingly badly organized birthday concert for Lee Konitz, held in a shoddy little New York dive.
I had been invited to take part but after one of the musicians felt it was beneath him to share a stage with me, I decided departure was the better part of valor.
Unfortunately, the management still saw an opportunity to bilk patrons out of their cash on the basis of my "appearance."
A black comedy ensued, as fist-fights broke out between members of the audience and the management, while Lee and Bill blew wild and free with little reference to the proposed setlist.
Only a man of Bill's calm could come through such a debacle unscathed.
Bill continues to amze me with his masterful but innately modest embrace of musical idioms. He is one of America's most unique musicians.
We now live in a time where I believe we all hear very well beyond the old stop-signs and signposts of "jazz" and "folk." The work of the composer can blur and meld with the art of interpretation and reinvention.
For Bill Frisell, this might take in the songs of Leon Payne, Governor Jimmie Davis, the Carter Family, Bob Dylan or Hazel Dickens. Great American voices all, and to which you can add the name of Bill Frisell.
— Elvis Costello