Bill Frisell ‘Harmony’ LP/CD (Blue Note) 2/5

Somewhat surprisingly, this is, in fact, Bill Frisell’s Blue Note debut in his own right. Having had an association with various artists on the label, stretching back as far as his appearance on John Scofield’s 1992 release Grace Under Pressure, the acclaimed guitarist hadn’t previously released an album of his own for jazz’s most famous label, until now that is.

“Harmony” brings together long-time collaborators Petra Haden on vocals, and Hank Roberts on cello and vocals, along with relative newcomer Luke Bergman, on acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, bass and vocals. It is, of course, Frisell’s own evocative guitar playing that leads the way throughout the recording, but it is very much a group effort, with the quartet working their way, quite eloquently it has to be said, through the great American songbook and beyond.

Those who have followed Frisell’s career will know that he’s not averse to trying something new. He is, without doubt, one of the most innovative and imitated guitarists around, his distinctive sound copied my many, but surpassed by none.
His choice of music, be it via original composition or covering standards, has often showcased his talents in many different ways. Whether it be edgy, innovative jazz, reflective ambience, or country-tinged Americana, he has managed to stay true to his own, unique voice.

And so, some might have thought, Blue Note? Bill Frisell? … surely a match made in Heaven? Well, and I do say this with a disappointed sigh, to my mind this coming together of great label and great artist has actually brought out the worse in both of them. Let me ask a question: when was the last time Blue Note released a truly great jazz album? An original album that is… not a reissue or previously unreleased recording. The label was indeed the most iconic of jazz record labels, and still benefits from its truly wonderful history, but I’m sure it must be well documented elsewhere that its output these days relies heavily on a commercially acceptable aspect that many labels need to live by in order to survive.

And so it is with “Harmony”. Yes, there is a thoughtful, intelligent patience in the music recorded here, but to be honest my patience wears thin. As an album it doesn’t really go anywhere, with its twee versions of American folk and Country tunes such as “Hard Times”, “Red River Valley”, “Lonesome” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”, barely breaking sweat or raising an eyebrow. Haden’s often wordless voice just doesn’t inspire any kind of connection with the listener, despite the obvious fact that she has a lovely voice. The interplay between the two guitarists is the best thing about the album, with Frisell and Bergman bringing a natural warmth to the proceedings. But overall, as much as I try, especially being a big Frisell admirer, I just can’t find much to like here.

For me, Bill Frisell has always pushed the boundaries. Regardless of whether I’ve felt any particular release of his was awesome, or just not my cup of tea, I never thought I’d ever call his music mediocre…

Mike Gates

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Bill Frisell ‘Music Is’ 2LP/CD (OKeh/Music On Vinyl) 4/5