Iconic guitarist-composer Bill Frisell has chosen to primarily emphasize the Americana side of his music for his debut as a leader for Blue Note Records. When Frisell organized his new band with vocalist Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts and guitarist-bassist Luke Bergman he was struck by the fact that all of the band members but him sang, so their vocal blend became the group's signature sound as well as the inspiration for the name Harmony. Upon first hearing, the album sounds rooted in traditional American music, but in fact eight of the fourteen selections were composed by Frisell.
The set leads off with three of his: "Everywhere" and "Fifty Years" both employ vocals in a traditional musical setting, and it is notable that the first sound is a cappella vocals. "God's Wing'd Horse" (words by Julie Miller) adds lyrics to the mix but, as the title implies, they sound as if they could easily be from a folk song. All three vocalists harmonize with only guitar accompaniment: Frisell solos a bit here, but solos are not the focus in this music. It is an ensemble sound above all.
Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" is the first of the traditional selections, beautifully rendered with only voices and guitars. "Red River Valley" strips the arrangement down to just the three voices; Frisell lays out completely, an impressive commitment to the vocal blend that is the heart of the group. Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" gets a very modern arrangement, the mournful subject intensified by new harmonies and a doleful vocal performance by Haden.
The tunes that are neither traditional nor original are an interesting and varied lot. "Deep Dead Blue" is a collaboration between Elvis Costello and Frisell from their album Deep Dead Blue (Nonesuch Records, 1995). Petra sings her late bassist-composer father Charlie Haden's "There In A Dream," an atmospheric noir tune first heard on the Charlie Haden Quartet West's Now Is the Hour (Verve, 1996). Billy Strayhorn's classic "Lush Life" is the one unambiguously jazz entry. It's a beautiful, minimal duet performance by Frisell and Haden.
Frisell fans should have learned long ago to keep an open mind. This album has arguably less of a guitar focus than any previous one. Yet it is suffused with his genre-free love of music, and his guitar-playing remains a foundation element. It's a beautiful group sound, with the name Harmony very well deserved.
Everywhere; God’s Wing’d Horse; Fifty Years; Hard Times; Deep Dead Blue; There in a Dream; Lonesome; On the Street Where You Live; How Many Miles?; Lush Life; Honest Man; Red River Valley; Curiosity; Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Bill Frisell: guitar; Petra Haden: voice; Hank Roberts: cello, voice; Luke Bergman: baritone guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, voice.