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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

petra n frisell

Petra Haden & Bill Frisell

Some very nice person at Sovereign Artists has sent me a wonderful album that I can't take off the CD player.

It's violinist-singer Petra Haden in duet with guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell but the whole production has such a distinguished provenance it deserves listing here

The album came out last January and its generous 12 tracks of eclectic songs are a joy, taking in the Foo Fighters, Elliot Smith, Tom Waits, Coldplay, Stevie Wonder and George Gershwin.

Petra Haden has a truly gorgeous voice that she's able to vary in texture and timbre according to mood and register. Her double-tracked close harmonies on Waits' "I don't want to grow up" and Foo's "Floaty" deliver the sort of pure joy to set the neck hairs tingling.

What I love about voices like Petra's is that they're like good wine, their vocal bouquet and tonal esthers and ethers reminding me of others I've enjoyed.

In this case:

  • The yet-2-B-fully-appreciated songstress, Laura Veirs (also backed by Frisell)
  • The Incredible String Band's 'Licorice' McKechnie
  • That un-named singer on Moby's "Azure Day"
  • In some of the harmonies, Suzzy and Maggie Roche

    Haden could sing the WSF sailing schedule and have me swooning, and in fact she does with another Washington creation, the Washington/Harline classic, "Wish Upon a Star", which I've never taken to until now: Petra singing it andante, angelic voice soaring and Frisell's careful chords giving the song new meaning.

    Frisell is one of the great guitarists of our time - in my view, of a *very* long time. I know he's peddled as a soloist but I believe his real talent and love is as an accompanist. This was one of the avenues I'd hoped to explore in a local-strummer-makes-good interview - frustratingly thwarted by his PR handlers - suggested by the saintèd editor of our own Review.

    With his consummate artistry on electric and acoustic instruments and mastery of those loops, I'm convinced that Frisell is happiest just prancing and swooping around in the background, laying down a carpet of sound for his pals to perform at their best.

    I once attended a party with distant cousin Jock Sutcliffe, Principal Oboe for the London Philharmonic, where I met pianist Gerald Brown, accompanist to so many great singers, and asked him how it felt always to be bridesmaid and never launch into a hot solo. He must have been asked this a thousand times but was nice enough to appear to ponder and said that the sheer pleasure of putting his skills at the service of bringing out the best in *others* far surpassed any pleasure or satisfaction as a front man.

    Petra is in fact a virtuoso violinist and the album profits from her playing: listen to the perfectly judged pizzicato on Satellite.

    Bill Frisell: What can I say about the man that doesn't sound cheesy or toadying? I have most of his recordings, to the extent that my fellow guitarists tease me. After listening to I-forget-which track, one of them commented that if he wanted to hear a guitar sound like a penny whistle he'd buy an album of a penny whistler. Yet, the very next time he visited, his reaction was, "Duude! Who's *that*?"

    Frisell is unquestionably master of *every* style (about which more later) to the extent that, if I needed to name a compilation album, I'd probably choose just that - "Who *is* that guy?"

    Here, he transforms every song, be it sweeping sonorous chords for the likes of 'Moon River' or 'Wish on Star' to the sublime soaring electric solo he takes on Stevie Wonder's "I Believe".

    Track 10 is 'John Hardy', a simple unadorned rendering of the classic that he also takes at daringly funereal pace with Danny Barnes and Keith Lowe on The Willies. Here it's just a pick 'n' brush job on a nylon-stringed and it scares the hell out of me.

    I've always nursed the comfort that, whatever pyrotechnics Frisell has mastered with the plectrum and all those fancy electronic loopings, if it ever came down to plain ol' simple fingering on a classical guitar backing, he'd be sorta down here with the likes of me. Huh!

    You guitarists out there, listen to it and genuflect. The rest of you, it is just the sweetest most expert virtuoso backing and solo you ever did hear.

    I had my severest Frisell critic looking in for a jar so I decided to play a trick and have the Hardy track ready and playing when the door bell chimed.

    I seated him and poured us both a Guinness and we caught up with news. I could see he was distracted and, sure enough, at the end of the track, he asked, "Could we hear that again?"

    I handed him the controls and the album cover - "Track 10".

    "Not Bill Frisell!," he exclaimed, "Who the heck *is* this guy??"

    Good question.

    A gem of an album. Thanks again to Sovereign.

    Whoever they are, I hope I've conveyed the message because this team is on the right road and there's not many of them with this vision out there.

  • Comments:
    Too bad Bill decided to move off the island. He and his artist wife Carole d'Inverno are missed!

    Now I really *am* impressed. I had no idea. Well, no reason to except not seeing him around. I must immediately stop referring to him in all my reviews as a fellow island strummer before some equally clued-up ed calls me on it. Nice catch, thanks.
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