sun 23/06/2024

Bill Frisell's Harmony, Cadogan Hall review – superb Americana | reviews, news & interviews

Bill Frisell's Harmony, Cadogan Hall review – superb Americana

Bill Frisell's Harmony, Cadogan Hall review – superb Americana

A great new project with voices takes in Lerner and Loewe and Bowie

In harmony: Bill Frisell, Luke Bergmanm Petra Haden and Hank RobertsMonica Jane Frisell

“Bill Frisell is all about sound and melody and enhancing whatever context he is in.” That quote, which defines both the American guitarist’s gentle and benign nature and his huge level of musicianship, is from Emma Franz, who recently directed and produced a film portrait of him.

In Frisell’s new project, Harmony, which also, finally, marks his debut on Blue Note Records with an album in his own name, he applies that principle to working with singers. “I’m singing with my guitar and the rest are singing with their voices. But basically that’s what it is: we’re singing together,” he has said in interview. The project was kickstarted by a commission from FreshGrass Foundation, which has a mission to promote “innovative grassroots music”.

And, in essence, it works very well indeed. Heard live, this project is far more convincing than When You Wish Upon a Star from 2016, based on film themes. That was the first time Frisell had brought vocalist Petra Haden (daughter of the bassist Charlie) into an album project. And the main differences between then and now are firstly that she has adapted her vocal delivery, and can live and breathe much more naturally at the mesmerically slow pace at which Frisell’s stories tend to unfold, and secondly because she also has vocal company: the voices of cellist/singer Hank Roberts and baritone guitarist/singer Luke Bergman. They harmonise with her as she takes the lead melodic line.

This concert erases an uncomfortable memory of the When You Wish Upon a Star band in concert in 2016, performing the film theme “(What’s it All About) Alfie”, which they took at a numbing pace. It had just about worked on the album, but in concert it felt like an interminable spell in a straitjacket for Petra Haden. Since then, what she has done is to abandon the quest for long vocal lines. She now always leaves plenty of space, there are interstices between her short phrases, sometimes even between the words. That does take a little bit of getting used to at first, but the results can be unforgettable: insert well-judged pauses into the line “Romance is mush” from Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and its truth hits home harder.

The addition in this band is Luke Bergman, a versatile, superbly collaborative musician known in the area around Seattle for community and educational work. He is part of the musical set-up around the University of Washington (U-Dub). He has done album projects recording gentle songs in disused farmhouses and on riverbanks. In this context, his lower guitar voice alongside Frisell, all that blending and accompanying was fabulous, and his vocal harmonising was flawless. Cellist Hank Roberts, like Frisell himself, is a musician who can produce the eerie and unexpected. This is a trope for Frisell bands, and is very strong in this one. If the context ever starts to feel too new-age-y or saccharine, a sudden double-stopped chromatic slide from Roberts will walk the whole band instantly into a David Lynch movie.

Most of the comment on this band has dwelt on another Frisell shtick, the range of unlikely repertoire his bands cover and completely absorb. Last night, in addition to the Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live” and “Deep Dead Blue” by Elvis Costello, and the evergreen “Red River Valley” sung a capella, all of which are on the album, we also had a surprise: a concentrated Frisell adagio version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. What is perhaps more remarkable is the range of sound, of mood, of expression, and the constant musical interest they can generate, while never allowing the core pulse to quicken. 

Frisell has now produced over 20 albums since the turn of the millennium, almost all of them in different configurations. Whereas some artists slide into just doing “greatest hits”, other iterations, or becoming their own tribute bands, Frisell moves on constantly, and this new project from him is one of his best.

Luke Bergman is a real discovery – a versatile, superbly collaborative musician from Seattle


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Great review of a phenominal performance that I'm still 'absorbing' the next day - and I'm no concert newbie, having seen well over 1000 (as a non-London based punter I hasten to add - I'm no music / journalism industry employee either). I've seen Frisell lots of times and also now seen Petra Haden a few times in various guises. She never ceases to 'wow' me with the purity and beauty of her voice. My only surprise in your review is no mention of the sublime rendition of 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?' (an album highlight too) or of their participatory encore 'We Shall Overcome" - I'm sure a pointed comment on the sorry political (and cultural) states both sides of the Atlantic currently find themselves in!

JP your compliment and also your helpful comments which complement the review really well are much appreciated. Thank you!

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