Guitarist Bill Frisell is a postmodern jazz wizard who embraces multiple genres, including country and popular music, so he’s no stranger to singers. But HARMONY, the quartet he’s bringing to Seattle’s Moore Theatre March 5, is unusual, even for him.
HARMONY not only features Frisell’s longtime associate Petra Haden on vocals, but Frisell’s frequent side players as well — bassist Luke Bergman and cellist Hank Roberts. The result is a wide-ranging mix of spectral harmonic clouds, sweet-as-pie bluegrass and astonishingly intricate vocal jazz.
Frisell launched HARMONY after receiving a 2016 composition commission from the FreshGrass Foundation, which presents a bluegrass-inspired new music festival in Massachusetts and also publishes the excellent music magazine No Depression. Though the quartet premiered the new compositions in 2016 and recorded an album for Blue Note that came out last year, their Seattle date marks the first proper album-release tour for HARMONY.
Like so much of Frisell’s music, HARMONY came about less by intention than as a result of letting an organic process grow.
“My initial thought was Hank will play cello and Luke will play baritone guitar (a lower-pitched version of the familiar instrument) and Petra will sing,” said the Grammy-winning guitarist in a telephone interview from Brooklyn, where he moved three years ago after 28 years in Seattle. “But we had one rehearsal and I said, ‘Oh, man, wait a second! They all sing!’ So we just tried something and they immediately found their way into this three-part harmony thing.”
That “something” was the sweet cowboy song “Red River Valley,” one of the album’s most delightful tracks. Its country flavor continues with the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times,” and the dark, Appalachian-tinged hymn “God’s Wing’d Horse,” which Frisell recorded years ago with the country music team Buddy and Julie Miller.
Bergman, Haden and Roberts create a vocal blend that sounds remarkably natural for three musicians who never worked together before this. It’s as if they were singing on one of those old country radio shows Petra Haden’s father, bassist Charlie, performed on as a boy.
“It just feels like a family band,” said Frisell.
But just when you think HARMONY is a country project, the band takes a sharp left turn into jazz on Bergman’s intricate arrangement of Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live.”
Bergman, who taught at the University of Washington until 2018, when he, like Frisell, moved to New York, originally wrote the arrangement for pedal steel guitar, a truly odd origin for a jazz vocal.
“There’s a lot of stuff I wrote that I didn’t ever expect to sing,” said Bergman, who also sings in the band Heatwarmer and the duo Thousands.
Where the Lerner and Loewe piece sounds like something the Hi-Lo’s might have done and “Red River Valley” evokes the Carter Family, Frisell’s original “Everywhere” floats like trance music in an echo chamber.
Quite an imaginative range. But the ever modest Frisell shrugs off just how special HARMONY is.
“It was just an opportunity to do something new and different,” he said, which might be a good way to describe just about everything he’s ever done.
Bill Frisell: HARMONY, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5; The Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $32.50-$52.50; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org