Bill Frisell’s Harmony is Dang Beautiful – And Dang Approachable
“Let Bill sing!” someone shouted from the audience, and Bill Frisell smiled.
He, cellist Hank Roberts, baritone guitarist Luke Bergman, and vocalist Petra Haden had just reemerged on the Carrboro ArtsCenter stage for an encore. It’s true, Frisell had a mic, but he’d only used it to mutter surprisingly funny asides between songs. Meanwhile, his collaborators in Harmony, this project’s name, had used theirs to showcase a respectable control of vocal harmony and counterpoint. Yet for Frisell’s outwardly understated demeanor, this multifaceted jazz guitarist sang in his own way. On this Thursday evening in North Carolina, Frisell et al. married three American musical traditions – jazz, new music, and the Great American Songbook – in a remarkable, coherent way.
The results were unsurprisingly beautiful, yet unexpectedly approachable. And for all the lofty concepts at play in Harmony, there was no performer-audience gulf.
Frisell, Roberts, Bergman, and Haden’s rendition of “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” is a prime example of why. In the Harmony interpretation, the song seemed to emerge from a primordial state. Slow, protracted musical phrases ebbed and flowed, punctuated by Haden’s vocal melody rather than driven by it. But then, on the “where have all the young girls gone?” verse, the song seemed to realize itself, with Haden singing the familiar Pete Seeger melody and Frisell playing it on his Telecaster. Before the final verse, Haden shouted “come on, everybody,” and led the ArtsCenter crowd in a singalong.
“You Are My Sunshine” opened with the familiar vocal melody and phrasing atop wandering jazz guitar before departing into a playful country-jazz swing, while the warmth of Frisell’s playing, the honest passion in Haden’s vocals, and this combo’s precise three-way vocal harmonies made for a simply arresting version of “On the Street Where you Live.” The only tension of the evening, honestly, came in the form of a nagging “Wait, but what about the Carter Family?” internal question that was eventually answered at the end of the encore, with “Wildwood Flower.”
Oh, and don’t ask this reviewer to try and describe the staggering beauty of the Haden and Frisell-led “Oh Shenandoah” in something as grubby and imprecise as prose. At moments, this reverent junction of American folksong, jazz, and new music polyphony truly did feel like a form of sacred music.
Still, Frisell, Roberts, Bergman, and Haden were consistently at ease throughout the evening. At one point, Haden mentioned that Swervedriver, her favorite band, was playing next door at the Cat’s Cradle and admitted to taking a picture for Instagram. And before paying tribute to the Carrboro-born Elizabeth Cotten with her “Freight Train,” Frisell sheepishly told the room it was a song he’d been trying (and failing) to master for 50 years.
These are deeply familiar songs, after all, and for all the advanced theory and technique behind the new renditions, Harmony celebrated their universality (case in point: Frisell and company played “This Land is Your Land”). To that egalitarian end, Harmony didn’t ride the traditional soloist and accompanists relationship that can happen when a celebrated player like Frisell assembles a project. His solos were not focal, but structural; vocalist Haden wasn’t necessarily a soloist, either, but a melodic anchor, just another element contributing to the whole. True to its roots in the Great American Songbook, Harmony’s songs belonged to everyone in the room, which the players onstage seemed to understand and celebrate.