The list of musicians Bill Frisell has worked with is so unbelievable that Frisell himself barely believes it.
“It really does feel like I’m dreaming sometimes,” he said from his home in Brooklyn.
The guitarist has recorded or performed with pop and rock stars (Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello), jazz legends (McCoy Tyner, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter), singer-songwriters (Lucinda Williams, Ron Sexsmith, Vic Chesnutt, Suzanne Vega) and fellow guitarists (Marc Ribot, Greg Leisz, Buddy Miller). He once even collaborated with a cartoonist, contributing music to a TV special based on “The Far Side” comic strip in 1994.
One of Frisell’s latest collaborations brings him to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem on Friday, Sept. 3. “Harmony” is the name of both an album and a band assembled by Frisell, bringing together three artists he previously worked with separately: Petra Haden, who sings; Hank Roberts, who plays cello; and Luke Bergman, who plays baritone guitar and bass.
“I’d played with all of them a lot, but I don’t think any of them had even met at that point,” Frisell said. “But I had this idea that I wanted to stick all of them together, so I wrote some new music.”
It all started when FreshGrass, an organization that stages music festivals in Arkansas and Massachusetts, commissioned Frisell to do a project. The quartet began with a performance in San Francisco. At first Petra was the only one singing. “Sort of as an afterthought, I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute – Hank sings and Luke sings. Let’s just try some song where you’re all singing.’ And it was like, ‘Aw man, OK – now that’s what this thing is about.’”
The “Harmony” album is the guitarist’s first for the legendary jazz label Blue Note. It includes some new Frisell originals, jazz standards like “Lush Life” and vintage folk songs like “Red River Valley” and Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times (Come Again No More).”
“The album’s appeal comes from its utter listenability and sumptuous delivery,” wrote a reviewer for All About Jazz. “It also proffers an innovative, drum-less configuration of strings, lead and backing vocals.” A Relix reviewer wrote that “the truly shiny moments come when the three voices, entangled with Frisell’s ever-perceptive guitar, become one rapturous, embraceable sound, as on the cover of the show tune ‘On the Street Where You Live’ and Frisell’s ‘God’s Wing’d Horse.’”
Will Layman reviewed “Harmony” for Pop Matters: “The music is frequently a rich balance of vocal tones and cracking, shimmering strings – as both Frisell and Bergman may be playing guitars in conversation. Roberts’ cello, in sonority, sounds very much like a human voice. The music always sounds like clean and simple chamber folk, but the humming layers are rich enough that simple isn’t the only quality here.”
The “Harmony” concert will be the 23rd in the Crossroads @ SECCA series launched by Andy Tennille a decade ago. The last concert in the series took place before the lockdown in November 2019. Previous performers have included Lucinda Williams, Leon Russell, Justin Townes Earle and Gillian Welch.
The music of Harmony has evolved since its album was recorded, and Frisell looks forward to playing regularly in public again. His last concert before the pandemic shutdown was a Harmony show. “Since the album, we’ve added a whole bunch of stuff,” he said. “I’ve been writing this whole last year and a half, so I’m hoping we can start adding some of that in there too. I’m really excited to get back going again.”
He recently returned from a weeklong music workshop in Denmark.
“I was nervous about it,” Frisell said. “It could have been weird, but they were real careful about having everyone tested and vaccinated and all that. We all stayed in the same place for a whole week. It was actually an amazing relief to feel relaxed about being with everyone altogether.”
He’s also getting back to work on other projects, including “Life Lessons,” an album he recorded with two other musicians: Tim O’Brien, a country and bluegrass veteran, and Dale Bruning, who taught guitar to Frisell and O’Brien when they were teenagers in Denver. Bruning introduced Frisell to the music of Miles Davis and other jazz greats.
“He’s probably the most important influence on me, just opening my mind to this whole world of music,” Frisell said. “People I never would have known.”
A concert in Boulder on Aug. 25 celebrated the release of “Life Lessons.” Bruning remains an active musician at 86.
“He’s still playing great,” Frisell said. “He’s getting up there, but he’s strong. Man alive! He always surprises me.”