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Bill Frisell at Cadogan Hall


“If somebody makes a so-called mistake,” Bill Frisell says near the end of the promotional film for his new album, “that can be the most beautiful thing that happens all night, if everybody’s open to what that sound is and embraces it and makes it sound good. If everyone’s watching out for each other and everyone feels like they can take a risk, it gives the music a chance to keep going and evolving.”

Last night at Cadogan Hall it was his turn to flub an ending, the mistake quickly finessed by his three colleagues — the singer Petra Haden, the cellist Hank Roberts and the bass guitarist Luke Bergman — with grace and smiles. And right there was the humanity of any music in which Frisell has a hand.

His mission to demonstrate and explore the consanguinity of all forms of American vernacular music — from Charles Ives to Thelonious Monk, from Hank Williams to Henry Mancini, from Muddy Waters to the Beach Boys — was accomplished many years ago, but with Harmony, the title of his first album on the Blue Note label, it seems to have reached another peak. The empathy, flexibility and modesty of this quartet make it an ideal vehicle for another exercise in creative juxtaposition.

The concert began quietly, with Haden’s beautifully plain voice enunciating the wandering, wordless, childlike line of Frisell’s “Everywhere”. The first high point came with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, on which Roberts and Bergman joined Haden in the sort of three-part Appalachian harmonies guaranteed to strike instantly at a special place in the emotions. There was a wholehearted ovation for that. “Lush Life”, fiendishly difficult to sing, was another highlight; also included in last year’s solo concert at the same venue and on Epistrophy, his recent live duo album with the bassist Thomas Morgan, Billy Strayhorn’s great ballad is clearly a preoccupation, and its intense chromaticism brought out the Jim Hall influence in Frisell’s work on his double-cutaway semi-acoustic instrument.

There was an interesting recasting of “On the Street Where You Live” (from My Fair Lady) and a lovely harmonised version of the traditional “Red River Valley”, interspersed with little instrumental pieces making sparing use of the guitarist’s loops and effects. The set ended with a segue from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, rendered in full and apparently without ironic intent. For an encore, demanded with fervent enthusiasm, they returned to stand at the microphones and deliver “We Shall Overcome”, inviting us to join in; well, at least now they know what English hymn-singing sounds like.

It was a mystery that, for the latest project from this great musician, a hall which was packed for his solo appearance a year ago should be so thinly populated last night. Perhaps the concert was badly advertised. The album is not yet out, which probably didn’t help. But anyone who wasn’t there missed a quietly remarkable night.

* Harmony is out on November 1. Epistrophy was released by ECM earlier this year. The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bren Pointer #

    Wonderfully expressed Richard…was a remarkable night indeed, and as you pointed out, and to my surprise, not a full house. Any chance to see Bill Frisell usually renders a rich textured musical experience and last night did not disappoint. Best Bren

    October 16, 2019
  2. GuitarSlinger #

    A Dizzie Gillespe quote in regards to mistakes I’ve lived by all my life ( and that Dale Bruning .. both Bill’s and my mentor drilled into our heads )

    ” The best musician isn’t the one who never makes a mistake because everyone makes mistake . The best musician is the one that can make a mistake sound right ”

    Or as I’ve drilled into my students heads … ” the only way to get to the good stuff is to wade thru a whole lotta garbage along the way ( with the addendum of never abandon the garbage because you never know when that might end up becoming brilliant )

    Funny about the crowd or the lack thereof . That is to say the least rather surprising and disappointing . I mean really … what part of any project that includes Bill and Petra Haden isn’t of interest ?

    But then again … Bill’s first album with Petra was a runaway success here in the US ( even getting some FM rock airplay ) .. we’ve ( US ) had ” Harmony ” since Oct. 4th with multiple sources streaming the entire album since Oct 1st … etc – et al so … err … maybe my perspective is s bit too my side o’ the pond


    October 16, 2019
  3. A fine and perceptive review, Richard, as always, and you’re right about Billy Strayhorn’s immortal “Lush Life” being a current preoccupation of Frisell’s. In interview recently, he told me that it had taken him many years before he’d “even had the nerve to play it”, and that before he recorded the delicate and plaintive duo between himself and Petra Haden that appears on HARMONY (apparently Frisell prefers the title of the album and group in all caps – something to do with a unity and equality of letters?), he’d played the ballad almost every day for a year, that he couldn’t shake it off, that he felt “there was just so much to explore in that one song”. I couldn’t make the concert last night, but on record at least, that deep engagement, as with much of Frisell’s music, shows I think.

    October 16, 2019
  4. Can’t speak for any other Frisell fans who decided not to go but in my case I’d heard some of the new album’s songs previewed on Spotify and did not love them. Petra Haden is a technically gifted singer but something about her voice doesn’t sit well with me. I listened to the whole album just before posting this and I don’t think I’ll be returning to it for just that reason.

    October 17, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      You’re correct in saying Petra’s voice is a bit off putting and odd to digest initially .

      But … once you’ve taken the time to do so … listened to some of her past works with Bill ( ” Petra Haden and Bill Frisell ” – Paul Motian’s ” The Windmills of Your Mind ” w/ Bill Frisell,Thomas Morgan & Petra Haden ….. etc etc ) paid attention to the interplay between Petra’s voice and Bill’s playing ( it is exquisite ) along with Petra’s violin and Bill’s guitar .. allowing yourself to go beyond what you expect in a female jazz singer …. e.g. put your prejudices aside allowing the music to take center stage

      Suffice it to say at that point … you’ll GET IT … realizing what an amazing concert you missed out on in the process . Cause brother … you missed out on a good one !

      October 18, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      PS; I’m not in love with Petra’s voice either . But I do absolutely love the way she and Bill blend together and the music they create when on the same stage / studio

      October 18, 2019

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