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Bill Frisell: Harmony (Blue Note)

A review of guitarist’s Blue Note debut as a leader

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Bill Frisell, Harmony
Cover of Harmony by Bill Frisell

Getting your hands on a new Bill Frisell CD is a bit like unboxing a gift from a good friend with great taste. So what do we have here? Something intriguing, as it turns out, yet again.

Suffice to say, Harmony is bound to delight many fans who’ve followed the guitarist’s singular and increasingly curious path over the last few decades, even if it lacks the lighthearted tone associated with some of his most engaging sessions. Of course, because Frisell has never been overly concerned with genre distinctions, an innate sense of whimsy still informs his tune choices and original contributions. A quick glance at the songwriters represented here—Stephen Foster and Pete Seeger communing with Lerner and Loewe, Elvis Costello, and Billy Strayhorn—reveals the album’s expansive contours. But what sets Harmony apart, besides the fact that it marks Frisell’s Blue Note album debut as a leader, is the project itself: a “roots music” work commissioned by the FreshGrass Music Festival and featuring vocalist Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts, and Luke Bergman on acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, and bass.

Vocal harmonies (by Roberts and Bergman) enhance the mix, but Haden’s wordless singing is as essential as it is haunting, adding to the album’s markedly soulful nature. If Frisell sounds genuinely inspired by the setting, whether accenting melodies or sustaining atmospherics, no doubt his previous work with Haden and Roberts has something to do with it. But perhaps discovering how well his own tunes would serve the ensemble, amid the improbable shifts from “Hard Times” to “On the Street Where You Live” to “Lush Life,” proved pivotal. Either way, an auspicious kickoff to Frisell’s Blue Note years.

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Mike Joyce

A former editor of JazzTimes, Mike Joyce has written extensively on jazz, blues, country, and pop music for The Washington Post, Maryland and Washington, D.C. public television stations, and other outlets.