Harmony is about as Bill Frisell as a Bill Frisell recording can be. It combines both songs and approaches that span jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Americana (that particularly NPR-ish blend of country, folk, and grown-up rock), downtown art music, and chamber music. The band is made up of two longtime collaborators in vocalist Petra Haden and cellist Hank Roberts and a newcomer in bassist/guitarist/singer Luke Bergman. Bergman—who hails from the Seattle area where Frisell lived for many years—plays “jazz” in trumpeter Cuong Vu’s band, but he also makes creative Americana. He fits right in.
As it turns out, Roberts sings as well, so the quartet can feature three voices in harmony, and Haden often sings wordless lines. (“Red River Valley” is an old folk tune done a cappella this way.) As a result, the music is frequently a rich balance of vocal tones and cracking, shimmering strings—as both Frisell and Bergman may be playing guitars in conversation. Roberts’ cello, in sonority, sounds very much like a human voice. The music always sounds like clean and simple chamber folk, but the humming layers are rich enough that simple isn’t the only quality here.
Eight of the 14 compositions performed as part of Harmony are Frisell originals, but two are collaborations with lyricists. “God’s Wing’s Horse” is a gentle folk song with words by Julie Miller, a wonderful folk artist whose story here sounds like it comes from another era of mythology. “Deep Dead Blue” features lyrics by Elvis Costello, with whom Frisell collaborated on the singer’s Burt Bacharach project. The song moves from a haunting waltz into a section with little pulse and back to the slow skip. These moods seem equally “Frisell-ian” and representative of the lyricists in that they capture moods of contemplation and shadow and then, with a gentle surprise, will open up into a chord that seems spun with a single thread of gold. A small sparkle of wonder.
It’s no surprise that the band should record the song “There in a Dream”, written by Haden’s father (bassist Charlie Haden, with whom Frisell has also played) and given lyrics by songwriter Jessie Harris. This is a beautifully crafted 32-bar song that contains eight perfect measures of instrumental interaction between the two guitars and cello—not an improvisation, but a short interlude that makes this performance seem more traditional. The track also helps to open the program to its two clearest gems: classic songs that “jazz” groups are more likely to cover.
“On the Street Where You Live”, the Lerner and Loewe classic from My Fair Lady, has been covered a million times but never quite like this. The three voices interweave in intricate counterpoint, with Haden taking the lead and delivering her most expressive interpretation. Haden’s voice can be chameleon-like, of course. (She is best known for her multi-tracked solo a cappella album covering all of The Who Sell Out.) Here, she sounds invested in the lyric, leavening her usual cool sound with a shudder of vibrato. Frisell can wind his electric playing around the familiar melody to help renew it. And that playing, combined with the ingenious vocal arrangement, make this a set highlight.
The other standard is Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a guitar-vocal duet, and it’s even better. Hearing Haden accompanied only by Frisell for the full four minutes brings the album to its logical focus: the wonderful instrumental voicings and a singer who never-ever oversings, allowing the song to breathe through her tone, and who uses subtlety rather than bombast. When the other instruments aren’t there, Frisell’s playing sways with a bit more “jazz” time even though the song still feels consistent with the whole program’s chamber vibe. Alone together, Haden and Frisell seem most liberated to be themselves. Is that when art is best?
The other truly distinctive performance is a total reworking of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, which turns the familiar folk song into a chilly abstraction. In some ways, it reminds your ear more of Frisell’s own short “Curiosity”, which precedes it—a moody chamber miniature. “How Many Miles” is warmer Frisell original with a melancholy melody for the unison of Haden’s voice and Roberts’ cello. “Honest Man”, also by the leader, floats similarly on a simple two-note motif.
The question with some of these short songs without lyrics is whether they really fill you up. To some extent, they come off more like palate cleansers, filling out the meal gently before something else distinctive arrives from the menu. Bill Frisell’s uniquely genre-less music sometimes takes this risk—not filled with long or daring improvisation, not featuring highly expressive performance elements, balancing mood, and charming simplicity, it can feel vanilla. Without almost any of the distinct African-American elements of jazz and the “twang” of country music, it can seem to lack bite or tang.
Harmony makes up for that with a handful of gems and a dose of gentle weirdness, of course. But it might seem slightly ironic that the guitarist’s latest is also his debut on Blue Note Records, the swing ingest of all “jazz” record labels. In the new century, of course, “Blue Note” may be more likely to stand for certain major label ease. At his best, Frisell’s music isn’t easy but a sublime gentleness that blossoms into bright colors. That happens a few times here, and it is best when it does.