Bill Frisell’s Harmony Hall

As the guitarist headlines the Jazz Standard this weekend, we take a deeper look at his Blue Note debut

Bill Frisell and the Harmony Quartet

Leave it to maverick jazz guitar player Bill Frisell to finally sign to jazz giant Blue Note Records and deliver an album that no one would mistake for a traditional jazz album.

Of course, that’s hardly unexpected – the soft-spoken, musically brash axeman and composer has never had any interest in fulfilling anyone’s expectations. With his distinctive watery tone and omnivorous palette, Frisell has made a career out of following his muse down whatever winding path it walks, from uncommon post-bop and blissed-out Americana to squalling free jazz and post-everything atmospherics. The one thing any jazz label should expect from Frisell is too not get an actual jazz album. (Note: If you want jazz tradition, check out Frisell’s two recent ECM albums of standards with bassist Thomas Morgan.) 

As might be divined by its title and the appearance of Petra Haden, Harmony delves into vocals to a greater degree than is Frisell’s wont. Working with not only the a cappella specialist and erstwhile That Dog violinist, but cellist Hank Roberts (an on-and-off partner in crime for over thirty years) and guitarist/bassist Luke Bergman (Lonesome Shack / Thousands / Speak), the guitarist blends originals and covers into a seamless travelogue of almost unbearably tasteful sonic expression.

Take “Everywhere,” “Curiosity” and “Fifty Years,” for example. Frisell strips his playing down to his tunes’ melodies, adding just enough filigree to remind us of whose work is spinning. Roberts and Bergman (on baritone guitar) contribute almost subliminal parts, while Haden croons in wordless counterpoint. The effect is meditative, but not in a new agey, wallpaper way – instead the music soaks into your skin like a cool drizzle on a hot day, refreshing and mesmerizing and more necessary to your well-being than you thought.

“Lonesome” follows a similar formula, though with a busier rhythm and a more riff-oriented approach. “Honest Man” takes on a lullaby-like feel, Haden crooning prettily over Bergman’s repetitive arpeggio, all of it sprinkled with Frisell’s muted twinkles.    

Bill Frisell Harmony. Blue Note 2019

Song with actual words fare just as well. Originally recorded with Elvis Costello, who wrote the lyrics, “Deep Dead Blue” finds its ultimate expression through Haden’s sonorous singing, with Frisell adding perfect counterpoint on his electric. Petra papa Charlie Haden’s “There in a Dream,” with words from songwriter Jesse Harris, becomes almost impossibly lovely here, with Frisell’s ax, Roberts’ cello and Haden’s vocal proving a luminous combination. Frisell dips into the standards songbook with My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live,” led by Petra. While it could be an excuse for vocal fireworks, Haden keeps her inner diva smartly in check, with Roberts and Bergman swooping flightily around her. Billy Strayhorn’s Duke Ellington hit “Lush Life” is even better, with Haden and Frisell duetting unaccompanied – the way the latter’s playing compliments the former’s singing makes clear why these two often work together. Arranged by all four musicians, with Bergman’s acoustic guitar providing the primary accompaniment, “Hard Times” is its usual stately self, with an appropriately sedate lead vocal from Haden and plainspoken harmonies from Bergman and Roberts. This song has been recorded hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and never loses its power. The take on “Red River Valley” comes as somewhat of a surprise, as it’s completely a cappella, with Frisell not appearing at all on the track.  

The group ends the album with a bold choice: Pete Seeger’s anti-war standard “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Though arguably any anti-war message remains timeless, the ubiquity of this tune and its oft-saccharine arrangements might make a lot of music fans cringe at its inclusion. Frisell, however, twists the tune to his own designs, recasting the vocal melody into a ghostlier, more angular shape, with Haden sounding like a restless spirit and the guitar never standing still long enough to let listeners get comfortable. The effect is a haunting one, remaking “Flowers” into a warning from a restless afterlife instead of a sentimental favorite devoid of its original purpose.

Making old songs fresh again is a staple of Frisell’s creativity, one that he exercises over and over on a record that never succumbs to the easy road to accessibility of most jazzer-with-singer projects. 


AUDIO: Bill Frisell Harmony (full album)


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Michael Toland

Michael Toland has been writing about music for various fan- and magazines since 1988, including Austin Chronicle, Blurt, The Big Takeover, Trouser Press Record Guide (online), Pop Culture Press, Amplifier, Sleazegrinder, Austin-American Statesman, Austinist, Austincitysearch, Goldmine, FHT Music Notes and, from 2001–2006, his own website, High Bias. As might be surmised by the number of times “Austin” appears in the above list, he lives in Austin, Texas.

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