How Bill Frisell's Years in Denver Informed His Music Career

Luke Bergman, Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts and Petra Haden (left to right) perform at the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, March 3.
Luke Bergman, Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts and Petra Haden (left to right) perform at the Boulder Theater on Tuesday, March 3. Monica Jane Frisell

Bill Frisell started hanging out at the Denver Folklore Center somewhere around the eighth grade. The center was at its original location, on 17th Avenue and Pearl Street. It was the early ’60s, when the store sold instruments and albums and had an adjoining storefront for classes. Frisell would take his nylon string acoustic there to take some of his first lessons from Bob Marcus, who taight him songs by Mississippi John Hurt and told him about the Paul Butterfield Band's self-titled debut.

Around that time, Frisell, now 68, was hearing Bob Dylan’s early records, as well as albums by Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul and Mary. But Frisell says that within a span of about three or four years, he went from getting a folk and blues education at the Folklore Center to digging Miles Davis and obsessing over jazz guitar after hearing Wes Montgomery’s trio debut and taking lessons from Longmont jazz master Dale Bruning.

Those years would inform much of what Frisell has done over five-plus decades of playing, incorporating jazz with folk, roots and Americana into a wholly distinctive approach to guitar. And Frisell says he’s constantly trying to stay in touch with that feeling of hearing something for the first time.

It’s something he’s tried to do with the various groups he’s worked with over the years, including his most recent chamber quartet, Harmony, which includes singer Petra Haden (daughter of late jazz bassist Charlie Haden), cellist and singer Hank Roberts, and guitarist and singer Luke Bergman. Last October, the group released Harmony on Blue Note Records — Frisell’s first recording under his own name for the legendary jazz imprint.

Frisell says that when he first played with Haden — they've worked together off and on for around two decades — it felt as if she was giving a voice to what he was hearing in his head. When FreshGrass Music Festival, an organization dedicated to the vitality of contemporary American roots music, commissioned Frisell a few years ago for new music, he formed the group, thinking that Haden would be the only singer.

While Frisell had long histories with Haden, Roberts and Bergman, the three musicians had never met before. At first he just wanted to get them all together to see what happened.

“It’s really haphazard, the way I work,” Frisell says. “So much of it is about the people. I was just thinking, ‘Oh, it would be cool if we got together and played. So I brought some music, and from there, it just sort of took off on its own. I just don’t have any real organized goals or plans. The music just always leads me from one place to another. When you pick up an instrument, you play one note, and there’s always a question about the next note you’re going to play. And so you just keep following it along, and it just takes you somewhere. Or you play one song and it will make you want to play another song. I’m always being surprised by it, I guess.”

Not long before the quartet was slated to premiere the material commissioned by FreshGrass Music Festival in San Francisco in 2016, Frisell realized that Bergman and Roberts were singers, too.

“And just at that last moment, it was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Frisell says. “They all sang. My memory is sort of at the end of this rehearsal. I thought, ‘Let’s try something where they just sang a song, like ‘Red River Valley’ or something. It was like, ‘Oh, man, now we’re really on to something.’ That’s what really sparked it.”

At the concert, Bergman and Roberts made up harmonies on the spot. “And it was just natural,” Frisell says. “There was a sound happening. Then we just started doing it more.”

On Harmony, Frisell and company perform new compositions, reimagining older material like “Deep Dead Blue,” which he originally recorded with Elvis Costello 25 years ago, and “Lonesome” (originally on 1998’s Gone, Just Like a Train) while also doing renditions of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live,” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Harmony is a stunning album, and it's fitting that it’s Frisell’s first under his own name for Blue Note, a label he became familiar with as a teenager buying albums like Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land and Sam Rivers’s Fuchsia Swing Song at Woolworth’s in Cherry Creek.

“Then, fifty years later, it’s really cool [to be on the label],” he says. “They’ve been so supportive and enthusiastic about what I’m doing. It’s just been great.”

Frisell just finished his second album for Blue Note with drummer Rudy Royston, a former Denver resident, and bassist Thomas Morgan.

Bill Frisell and Harmony, featuring Petra Haden, Hank Roberts and Luke Bergman, play at 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 3, at the Boulder Theater. Tickets are $25 to $30 and available on the Boulder Theater website.

Listen to Bill Frisell and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon