“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.