Bill Frisell, Harmony


Guitarist Bill Frisell has carved out a singular path in the jazz world, consistently sticking to his roots and American folk influences while establishing himself as a fixture on a plethora of recordings by jazz’s most idiosyncratic players, from Paul Motian to Andrew Cyrille. For an artist whose distinctive music is equally informed by The Beach Boys and Thelonious Monk, commonality lies in a deep commitment to and love of the song regardless of the strictures of genre.  

On this debut album for Blue Note as a leader, Frisell has assembled a quartet of long-time collaborators, namely Hank Roberts on cello, Luke Bergman on vocals, guitar and bass, and, the featured instrument, Petra Haden’s vocals. This collective is called Harmony. The singer’s lead vocals infuse this eclectic canon of songs with poignant delivery and an amazing ability to nail the deep core of each tune. Roberts and Bergman sometimes complement Haden’s voice with unison singing, making this a de facto harmony singing chorus, as on the heartfelt “God’s Wing’d Horse”. The album kicks off on a subdued note, an eery voice choir segueing into the duo of Frisell and Haden (yes, the late jazz bassist’s daughter) on the haunting “Everywhere”; though technically, the guitarist doesn’t use his vocal cords but plays his heart out with his signature spacious guitar strings. Comprising 8 original songs of Frisell’s and 6 covers culled from the folk, Americana and jazz repertoire, the album flows so seamlessly together that all the boundaries of genre seem to break down from the second these voices blend. Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is the lone jazz standard on the album and it gets a sparse and straightforward treatment by Frisell and Haden as if the song’s rich harmony didn’t need any more embellishment.  “Honest Man” is the dreamy prelude to the folk song “Red River Valley”, rendered in a cappella harmony, Frisell laying out completely. For that matter, however inevitably present on the album, Frisell’s spacious guitar doesn’t so much drive the band as it traces the contours of his musical soundscape, one that encompasses American folk traditions he cherishes and pushes them into present-day explorations. A case in point is Peter Seeger’s “Where have all the flowers gone”, which closes out the album with adventurous harmony, drawing previously undiscovered jewels from the tune. Frisell’s unmistakable touch on the guitar roves around the songs in understated accompaniment. It’s probably one of the most striking takeaways from this album made by an iconic guitarist who chooses not to make the guitar the focus of his album. An album released on the one of the most iconic jazz labels of all time.

On the album trailer video accompanying the release of Harmony, a good eye will probably notice the camera panning across Frisell’s bookshelves on which an impressive record collection (8’08) sits, neatly divided into genre sections. One of those is labeled “Weird Shit”. This is arguably as good a musical category as it gets. Isn’t it?

The Harmony quartet is Bill Frisell on guitars, Petra Haden on vocals, Hank Roberts on vocals and cello, Luke Bergman on vocals, guitars and bass

Check out Bill Frisell’s album teaser:

Selected listening:

Jazz: Small town and Epistrophy (with bassist Thomas Morgan), Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul, Motian (Nonesuch),

Folk/Americana: Music Is, Guitar in the Space Age, and a lot more.

As a sideman: I have the room above her (with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian), The Declaration of Musical Independence (Andrew Cyrille quartet), and a lot more.

Bach in fourths, the work of Stephen Lyman

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It’s a given. Bach only died biologically. But his musical legacy is very much alive, the standard he set in the 17th century perhaps eternally unsurpassable.

I’d like to wrap up this year’s sporadic blogging with a shout-out to my friend Stephen Lyman. Steve is an American guitarist from Utah who came to Paris in 2010 and hit on the purpose of his life there: playing Bach anonymously, on the street. He first played off the streets two days after arriving here, later gravitating towards several churches, until he discovered the Eglise Saint-Germain de l’Auxerrois and felt an immediate spiritual connection to the place. Like clockwork, he still plays there today, twice a week, offering to whomever will listen the four Lute Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach adapted to the guitar, as close as he will ever get to what he calls the Muse.

There is something appealingly obsessive about a musician devoting his entire creative time to celebrating the art of a composer who died four centuries ago. Of course, Steve is an accomplished guitarist well-versed in the classical repertoire, and who has performed professionally in various music styles for the better part of his life. But at this particular point on his journey, Bach seems to tie it together for him and represent the culmination of what he as a performing musician can achieve in his pursuit for artistic beauty. He will only play the Bach from here on out. Who could fault him for such a lofty commitment?

Though the music of Bach has experienced a resurgence in recent years, Baroque music getting seemingly more and more popular, the composer’s prolific oeuvre has often been reduced to its mathematical logic and formal precision. Granted, I’ve looked at Bach scores for keyboard and even played some when I was little, and it’s pretty discouraging. Visually distressing. I mean, all those 16th notes, come on…

Listening to Bach on guitar is an educational experience, though. It lets you hear a side of Bach you may not have thought about before: the simplicity and purity of Bach’s artistic statement, the greatness of his work for unaccompanied strings laid bare in front of you. The fugal quality of the writing dear to the composer is revealed in its beautiful architecture. The left hand moving across the different registers of the fingerboard, breaks down the magical relationship between the harmonic line in the low and middle registers with the fugal melodic statements weaving in and out on top. You can actually see and hear that and it all makes sense.

And how appropriate to celebrate Bach at this church. Here is where the bell tolled for the thousands of Protestant Huguenots who died during the infamous Bartholomew’s massacre in the 16th century. But if even you didn’t know it was there the first time, as I didn’t, it’s hard not to feel the particular aura radiating from this historic landmark. When you first walk in and hear the sound of a classical guitar playing somewhere down the nave, you will want to go there, its resonance will coax you over. It is the sound of a musician who is giving you Bach and expects nothing in return. The guitar case is open if you want to drop a coin but that’s not the point. Steve has worked on and polished up these pieces for over thirty years and still feels like he is a beginner with them. Whatever wrong or fluffed note may occur, and there are usually very few of them, Steve has developed an intimate relationship with these technically demanding but magnificent pieces. He practices them everyday rigorously and only performs them “when they’re ready”.

Steve has a CD out, Recital in the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Pitié-Salpêtrière, a recording on which he plays the Chaconne from the d minor Partita for Violin BW 1004, the Lute Suite BWV 995 and the Lute Suite BWV 997, in that order.

Christmas is only 10 days away, so if you’re still not sure what to put in your loved ones’ stockings, give them a little Bach and support one of his most admirable devotees.

Note: Stephen Lyman performs twice a week at Eglise Saint-Germain de l’Auxerrois, 2 Place du Louvre, 75001 Paris, France. Tuesdays & Fridays, 2pm-3pm. However,  due to the low temperatures in winter, Steve’s impromptu recitals may be more few and far between.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Stephen Lyman

Recital in the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Pitié Salpêtrière, Chaconne, Lute Suites BWV 995, 997.

Thelonious Sphere Monk: modern genius


Because you make every wrong note sound right

Because your jagged melodies have a rock-solid consistency

Because there is a playfulness to your serious art

Because you outhipped hipness before the term got hip

Because you never played the same thing twice and played it all the time

Because you once took a cigarette out of and back into Miles’ shirt pocket during his solo, and it would have hurt his pride to stop playing

Because you wrote a tune with all the accents in the least evident places and called it Evidence

Because the beauty of your music is in what you don’t play, in the silences

Because yours is a dance of hard-won joy, a song of inherited freedom

Because to the statement “it appears you’re famous, Thelonious”, your response is “famous, huh, ain’t that a bitch?”

Because with a name like that, you had to be an original

Because you poke and nudge us: the music is everywhere, you seem to say.

Better get hit in your soul: praise for Matana Roberts


Three syllables – stress on the first one – Ma-ta-na.  The multi-talented artist has been an obsession of mine in the last couple months (scroll down for my album review of Mississippi Moonchile, the latest installment in the Coin Coin series). True to form, I was about to say goodbye to bloggy land– keeping amateurish culture blogs is so 2013! – and bang, it hit me. Matana Roberts. I’m so thankful the composer, vocalist, alto saxophonist and self-professed sound quilter is giving me a chance to bring wynt into 2014. That’s how empowering art can be.

Having given a good listen through Coin Coin Chapter 1 over the weekend I feel somewhat recharged and eager to hammer in the message, dear readers: Matana Roberts is a great artist, a soulful experimentalist that should be known beyond the jazz/improv sphere. Constructed like a suite, Coin Coin 1 explores the ongoing consequences of slavery in present-day America through Robert’s deeply ingrained sense of storytelling and compositional prowess. For an artist whose roots are anchored in that traumatic heritage, I’m stunned and moved by her ability to stitch together the narrative of African American history without sounding preachy or pandering to the lure of the oneoff concept album. Built around the iconic figure of Marie-Thérèse Métoyer – a freed slave and family lore role model “[she] learned about before [she] learned about Harriet Tubman” (Interview in The Wire 356), the suite evokes a string of women’s slave narratives skillfully set to a variegated sound tapestry including Robert’s sing-speak, gut-wrenching shrieks, searing alto saxophone lines and a 15-piece orchestra that reinforces the album’s spiritual aura. It’s fairly rare these days to hear music that is at once fiercely political, artistically challenging and emotionally powerful. The sheer scope of this projected 12-part series is mind-boggling and it speaks to Robert’s urge to connect the scars of the past to its ongoing echoes in today’s American society. Robert’s blistering sax on the opening “Rise” sets the tone for an album that acknowledges its jazz and free improv roots just as it nods unapologetically to the Armageddon chamber rock originated by Godspeed on the Canadian Constellation label.  For that matter, Roberts has contributed to the band’s Yanki UXO (2002) and Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra’s Kollaps (2010) and here the use of a simmering pandemonium of violin and electric guitars building and waning as the story unfolds somewhat recall the trademark soundscapes of the label. However, there is inevitably a more Afro-American-centric agenda here and a clear sense that Roberts has gained invaluable experience from her time with the 40-year-old Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) arts and education collective, which has been an influential fixture for African-American artists striving to make artistic statements rooted in political, open-ended artforms. Here is an artist trawling through family archives documenting slave auctions where her ancestors were sold like cattle and building on that background to make a work of art that is by turns chilling, entrancing and, yes, uplifting. Like any good work or art, this one is multi-layered, showing off Robert’s painstaking attention to form and structure. The devastating shriek on the second track, Pov Titi, is the ideal introduction to Robert’s radical griot-style song-speech: “I was born a child of the moon, in the year of seventeen hundred and forty-two…hustling to survive so that others may strive to be something more than me”, she intones over a descending bass line soon fleshed out by the swelling orchestra.

Astonishingly, Robert’s diverse vocals, a rotating mix of rhapsodic chant, epic spoken word poetry and melodic fragments doubling instrumental lines are so galvanizing that it alleviates the human tragedy she’s relating. That cathartic effect percolates through the album like a healing balm working its way into open wounds. In one particularly affecting piece evoking the bidding in of women slaves, “Libation For Mr Brown: Bid Em in”, Robert’s obsessive refrain works like a soothing mantra as she impersonates the auctioneer reading out the characteristics of the woman to be sold. As she gathers strength and defies her oppressors, a steady beat settles in and Matana vocalizes a line to get the bass going, followed by piano, drums and a rising canon tailing off into the brooding sax.

What I find remarkable about Robert’s art is that the complexity of relating the African-American experience is reflected in the diversity of musical ideas she layers together. The contrasting mixed media mediums she taps into, which seem to take on even more power in a live situation, reflect an artist pushing her voice forward – “I am Matana, I am Matana, I am Matana”, she repeats on the simply titled “I am” – to give voice and empower others. Rarely has experimental music sounded so immediately accessible and innovative. Thankfully, Matana Roberts has more albums in the works. An exhilarating prospect.

On Constellation: Coin Coin Chapter 1: Gens de couleur libres (2011), Coin Coin Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile (2013)

Personnel on Coin Coin Chapter 1:

Matana Roberts: reeds/voice ; David Ryshpan: piano/organ ; Nicolas Caloia: cello ; Ellwood Epps: trumpet ; Brian Lipson: bass trumpet ; Fred Bazil: tenor sax ; Jason Sharp: baritone sax ; Hraïr Hratchian: doudouk ; Xarah Dion: prepared guitar ; Marie Davidson: violin ;Josh Zubot: violin ; Lisa Gamble: musical saw ; Thierry Amar: bass ;Jonah Fortune: bass ;David Payant: drums/vibes

Mississippi Moonchile still streams for free here (The Wire magazine) but get the nicely packaged LP if you can.

Also worth checking out: The Chicago Project (Central Control, 2007)

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile


Continuing the bold agenda initiated on her previous Coin Coin Chapter 1 Gens de couleur libres, Matana Roberts’ follow-up is an impressive and exciting album. Though it builds on the seminal first chapter, this sequel finds Roberts upping the ante and engaging an even wider spectrum of musical and historical milestones to explore her roots as an African-American woman.  The alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary sound artist has defined her artistic statement as “panoramic sound quilting” and this patchwork quality is even more intriguingly articulated on this new chapter, suggesting a deep-seated desire to piece together the tapestry of the African-American experience through both microcosmic and personal lenses. Coin Coin is the nickname of an inspirational freed slave, Marie Thérèse Métoyer, as well as what Roberts grandfather called her “for fun”, she says. As on Coin Coin 1, Roberts addresses the issues of appropriation and female empowerment with a very unique talent for storytelling. The haunting howl of Pov Piti (Coin Coin 1) has erupted into multiple vocal reverberations on Coin Coin 2, with Robert’s incandescent alto propelling the narrative forward.  While jazz is still a prominent part of this project – and Roberts’ improvisations and composition skills cannot be faulted – it is only one piece of the ongoing story, one that incorporates African 6/8 beats (“Thanks be you”), the blues (“Responsary”), funky New Orleans undertones (“Spares Of The World”), sacred music, communal chant (“Woman Red Racked”), and even the tenor voice of an opera singer. Throughout, Roberts mixes in her own voice in the form of fragmented narratives and spoken word based on family lore and African-American history. There is a sense that the story cannot be told in one big outpouring but needs future editing to patch together the “quilt”. “There are some things I just can’t tell you about”, she intones obsessively throughout the album.

“Invocation” leads off the suite, a Coltrane-tinged-circa Meditations-Ascension symphony of canon-like motifs coming together and apart over the churning rollercoaster of the rhythm section. The operatic tenor voice of Jeremiah Abiah, present from the start, is probably the most adventurous innovation on an album that straddles the secular and sacred lineages of African-American music with hard-edged commitment. Once you get past the oddness of hearing a music style that seems antithetical to the spiritual and labor roots of that culture – well, opera and jazz turn out to be a surprisingly successful marriage.  It also speaks to Roberts’ “avant-garde” sensibilities, which seem to center around the expression possibilities of the human voice in the context of orchestrated improvisation. Each song segues into the next seamlessly, with all the musicians bouncing around the melodic content, interacting with each other or contributing their own instrumental voice to the story. “Benediction” picks up the mood established by the opener “Invocation”, rounding off the album on a meditative and highly spiritual note. Part of a projected 12-part series, Mississippi Moonchile is a thrilling waystation along Matana Roberts’ fascinating journey, one that solidifies her place as an accomplished modernist and nonpareil artist.

For more detailed analysis of the album, I recommend buying The Wire’s October issue, which contains a full-length interview of Matana Roberts and, presumably, an insightful review of the album. I need to get that.

The album is out on Constellation Records and streaming on The Wire’s website.

Personnel: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone, vocals, conduction, wordspeak), Shoko Nagai (piano, vocals), Jason Palmer (trumpet, vocals), Thomson Kneeland (double bass, vocals), Tomas Fugiwara (drums, vocals), Jeremiah Abiah (operatic tenor vocals)

Also on Constellation:  Coin Coin Chapter one, gens de couleur libres.