Sunday, March 8, 2020

Concert Review: Bill Frisell’s Harmony at Atkins Auditorium

The ethereal beauty of “Everywhere”, the opening track of Bill Frisell’s 2019 album Harmony, is the sort of heavenly sound I hope to hear moments after drawing my final breath.  The version of “Everywhere” rendered by the brilliant guitarist Frisell, vocalist Petra Haden, guitarist and vocalist Luke Bergman and cellist and vocalist Hank Roberts at the start of their 90-minute performance at Atkins Auditorium on Wednesday, March 4, was somewhat less transportive.

The audience of more than 400 at the Harriman-Jewell Series presentation was immediately reminded that the four musicians are inspired humans rather than divine beings.  Yet the concert’s rough edges and dead ends were integral components of its appeal.  After Haden apologized for giggling mid-song, Frisell told her “don’t worry about it- it’s ok.”  He embraces happy accidents and is more interested in discovering new terrain than in repeating cautious routines. 

Frisell added delicate shadings and subtle tones to an exhibition of the country-tinged aspect of his artistry.  Yet rather than resembling a hillbilly jazz ensemble, the quartet evoked an alternate version of The Carter Family that excelled at improvisational theory while studying at Julliard.

While I favored the abstract instrumental forays, the audience responded most enthusiastically to comparatively straightforward interpretations of folk, pop and jazz standards.  A startlingly insightful reading of “Lush Life” was the clear highlight, but delighted gasps filled the room when Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” morphed into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”  More than a dozen people stood during a reverent take on the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

I knew I hadn’t died and gone to heaven when the quartet played an unironic version of Skeeter Davis’ over-the-top teen lament “The End of the World” as the encore.  Even so, the best moments of the quartet’s inspired- and entirely temporal- concert confirmed that death isn’t necessary to experience a glorious intimation of heaven.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

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