Click here to [close]

Monday, January 28, 2019

Mary Halvorson / Bill Frisell – The Maid With The Flaxen Hair: A Tribute To Johnny Smith (Tzadik, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

Sometimes I love reading scorchers (especially on amazon and youtube) of albums and artists I like a lot. Mary Halvorson, for example, often seems to disappoint people who are confronted with her music without having heard her before. On her new release, The Maid With The Flaxen Hair, a duo album with Bill Frisell, she pays tribute to the music of guitarist Johnny Smith. A listener ranted that this was a perfect example of “the bankruptcy of modern jazz guitar, taking one wonderful song after another, burying the melody in all sorts of extraneous effects“. For him the album was just awful and he wondered what kind of tribute to Johnny Smith this was. Well, one that makes perfect sense, of course.

Compared to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis and Grant Green, Johnny Smith is by far less famous. On the other hand, especially among musicians, Smith, who was also familiar with classical music, is widely considered as one of the greatest guitarists of the cool jazz era of the 1950s and early 1960s - and he has influenced both Halvorson and Frisell. Together, they play ten numbers associated with the guitarist, most of them ballads.

Bill Frisell’s connection to Johnny Smith goes even further back. He studied with him in 1970 at the University of Northern Colorado, where Smith had moved after the death of his wife in order to take care of his daughter. Frisell wasn't impressed by Smith’s lessons, coming down on his playing as “old fuddy duddy corny schmaltzy stuff“. He’s often regretted this statement since then, because he soon discovered the grace in Smith's elaborate and lyrical playing. “I didn't get it at the time. I wasn't hearing the beauty. I’m ashamed of myself and embarrassed to tell you this“, he later said about Smith’s style. One of Frisell’s signature tracks, “Shenandoah“ (from Good Dog, Happy Man), is based on Smith’s version of the traditional song and dedicated to him. Frisell did also copy Smith's arrangement of the folk song "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair“ and it's this arrangement that Halvorson plays note for note here. What is more, she plays it on a guitar designed by Johnny Smith. And what an outstanding version this is. Halvorson’s playing is ultra-precise, she takes the mellowness out of Smith’s version. It’s simple, clean and clear, the melody is crassly put to the fore, so that one has the impression that each note stabs you. This is foiled by Frisell's wobbly, yet elegant accompaniment.

Although the love of the two guitarists of Smith’s music constantly shines through, they make his versions their own as they meander through these well known compositions. As to Halvorson she does this with her hallmark sound created by a volume pedal and a Line 6 delay modeler plus expression pedal, as to Frisell it’s his reverberant, spacious, open style. Another highlight is “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning“, a classic the duo plays with the utmost respect, almost dissecting it. “Walk Don't Run“, a Smith original and the only uptempo track here, closes the album. It’s a joyful, sparkling number, that sounds as if the notes were made of glass. “I'm nowhere close to getting it right, but I'm going to keep on trying and trying“, Frisell says on playing this tune. That’s a bit too coquettish, of course.

The Maid With The Flaxen Hair is a virtuoso album that not only every guitarist should listen to. Moreover, it’s a very good introduction to Johnny Smith, no matter what the negative comments say.

It’s available as a CD. You can buy it from or from the label:

Listen to “Scarlet Ribbons From Her Hair“ here:


Unknown said...

Scarlet Ribbons .

Colin Green said...

I wonder what some listeners would make of Derek Bailey’s “Ballads” (Tzadik, 2002) and “Standards” (Tzadik, 2007), in a way precursors of this album.

Anonymous said...

Reaching an informed opinion about Derek Bailey's 'Standards' (definitely not to my taste!) was part of a long process of calibrating the limits of my musical comfort zone. This latest release is not for me. Musical taste is, after all, a very subjective matter.

Captain Hate said...

Nobody has to like anything but a lot of Amazon reviews can be distilled to "I don't like it" which is fine but not very insightful. It's become popular in some circles to bash Zorn, which I can partially understand, but he consistently gets Frisell to push his limits beyond what he does elsewhere.

Magan said...

I often ask my students to tell me what they don't like about something when they listen to it. I tell them it's not enough to say they don't like something unless they can tell me what it is about it they don't like. Usually it boils down to something like..."I've never heard anything like this before, or I've never hear this song done thins way and I would prefer it sounds the way I'm used to hearing it. It pretty much comes down to a willingness to try something new vs. not willing to experience something new.

Anonymous said...

Well-educated people know better than to make opinionated assertions about good or bad art. Ideally, they will remain receptive to new experiences throughout their lives, and by doing so they will develop and refine their personal tastes. Eventually a point is reached where 'That is not to my taste' is all that needs to be said.

Colin Green said...

Ideally, music should be judged according to the criteria appropriate to it, though understanding what those criteria are can be difficult., requiring patience and learning, not something everyone is prepared to do. In my experience however, when people do appreciate the kinds of things that are going on, they tend to like it, or at least feel better able to judge what is successful, good, bad, etc.

Nevertheless, there must remain some room for taste, that is: even though you recognise the relevant criteria, the music doesn’t appeal. That’s why for all of us, there are genres we don’t like – anyone who says they like everything is either lying, or just not listening properly. No doubt, trying to articulate why can be a valuable exercise for students, but I think it’s a little unrealistic elsewhere. Few of us can provide lucid reasoning for each of our beliefs and preferences; at best, just the ones that seem to matter.

There remains the question of why bother expressing views on Amazon, etc. if you can’t really explain or justify them? The answer might be that this kind of talk has always gone on as part of our daily lives, but the Internet has taught us that no thought, however transitory, should go unvoiced, and no opinion muted. The sort of stuff we all speak in bars, pubs and social gatherings we now publish to millions, few of whom are interested. The joy of social media, and the same probably applies to this comment!

El Gee said...

There are too many fine modern guitarists to dismiss all with a flippant remark about "the bankruptcy of modern jazz guitar". One needs only to listen to the playing of Vic Juris, Peter Sprague, Jonathan Kreisberg, Nir Felder, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Russel Malone, Gilad Hekselman, Mimi Fox, Adam Rogers, Adam Rafferty, Sheryl Bailey, Leni Stern, Mike Stern, Kevin Eubanks, Pat Martino, etc., etc., etc. to know this remark carries no truth.
However, I must admit that I have trouble hearing what all the fuss is about regarding Mary Halvorson's playing. While I don't find it a fair criticism to say that the melodies of songs on this album are buried "in all sorts of extraneous effects", I do think, for my personal tastes, that she overuses one particular effect, which I believe is called a "Whammy Pedal". Some may find it exciting. I have no problem with that. But, for me, her utilization of the effect sounds rather arbitrary and gratuitous.
Somehow though, Ms. Halvorson has become darling of jazz critics. Additionally, perhaps because her playing is somewhat "Avant Garde", she seems to get a pass on many aspects of her musicianship. As evidenced by some of the comments here, she seems to have entered the rare domain of artists whose work is above criticism. If a listener has aesthetic reasons for not liking it, he/she is dismissed.
Martin Schray claims that "Halvorson's playing is ultra precise". Really? Compared to what? Is it also soulful, lyrical, swinging, subtle? Mr. Schray also believes this album is a "very good introduction to Johnny Smith". Is he joking? I could not disagree more. Except for the fact that the selections are all songs associated with and recorded by Johnny Smith, I don't hear the influence of Smith's playing here at all. The flowing lines, the elegant touch, and the beautiful close-voiced chords, the love and respect for melody as written and as embellished - none of these are even hinted at here.