Blue Note

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.

In memory of Butch Warren

Butch Warren

I am still reeling from the news. With every passing of jazz veterans, the art form seems to recede a little further into history. Their legacy, though, remains immortal.  Butch Warren is not my main influence on bass but somehow I feel I had a special connection with him. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I’d like to relate an anecdote as a tribute of sorts.

Three years ago, I went to hear Butch Warren perform with a French quintet in Paris. As I recall, the musicians had caught up with him in NY and wanted to bring him over to France where he hadn’t performed in 30 years. I squirmed in my seat in eager anticipation. The concert began, and sure enough, Butch’s firm tone immediately brought to mind scores of blue note records that he played on – he was Blue Note’s house pianist back in the 60s– and importantly for me, his fruitful association with Monk during the 1963 Japan tour. As Robin D.G. Kelley remarks about Monk’s hiring of Warren before the tour (Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original, “Monk liked the big sound Warren got from the lower register and his inventive choice of notes – characteristics he appreciated in Wilbur Ware’s playing”. That sound was definitely present that late afternoon, preserved from a long spell of personal hardship and serious health problems. I could hear Butch huffing and puffing as his long fingers stumbled across the fingerboard, assuming unorthodox positions. After each song, he sat down and seemed to wait for the next tune call, as if to say “man, I can hold it down, okay, but don’t I deserve a little rest?” And yes, despite the awkward fingering and obvious signs of physical strain, he could sure hold it down and make his notes sing. I will never forget the sight of this giant laying down some heavy bluesy lines as if driven by a rekindled flame. At one point between two songs, I overheard the drummer winking at the saxophonist and mouthing the words “they don’t make them like him anymore”. He was enjoying that deep-soul vibe. So was I. Impeccably dressed and wearing a black Stetson hat, Butch cut an impressive figure despite his apparent fragile health.

The concert ended to thundering applause. I walked out the concert hall and lit up a cigarette to regain my senses. I was about to head home when I saw Butch come out and sit on some steps, rolling his cigarette. Petrified, I mustered my courage and walked up to him. That was now or never. I was only one handshake away from Thelonious Monk, for god’s sake! Like any nervous fan, I congratulated him a little dramatically. But that gave me a lead to ask him a couple of questions. He obliged me very nicely. Our brief conversation revolved around all things bass, strings, projection, cutting through the drums, his desire to mount some gut strings on his new bass and how unaffordable they were. When I asked the one question I should have asked from the start: “do you have any advice to give me as an aspiring bass player trying to develop his chops?”  I loved the laconic answer: “Try to get a good sound”. Those words burned into my mind like a haunting mantra. A young woman who seemed to be his manager nicely offered to take a picture of Butch and me with my cell phone. However heavily pixelized and impossible to enlarge, that miniature photo exists. On it, you can still recognize Butch, towering over me (he was about 6, 20 feet). I’m so glad and grateful I shook hands with that beautiful giant. RIP Edward Rudolph ‘Butch’ Warren.

Read the Washington Post obit for a glimpse of his life here

Watch Butches’ Blues, a short documentary that traces his rocky path, here

Selected album recommendations featuring Butch Warren on bass

Herbie Hancock, Takin’ off, Blue Note

Thelonious Monk, It’s Monk’s time, Blue Note

Thelonious Monk, Monk in Tokyo, Prestige (ideally, try to get the LP on Epic)

Jackie McLean, A Fickle Sonance, Blue Note

Sonny Clark, Leapin’ and Lopin’, Blue Note

Joe Henderson, Page one, Blue Note

Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings, CD 3, Gambit Records (only 2 tracks but it’s all in there)

Butch Warren, Butch’s Blues, Butch Warren