Artist: Bill Frisell & Mary Halvorson
Album: The Maid With The Flaxen Hair: A Tribute To Johnny Smith
Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz, Guitar Jazz
Quality: mp3, 320 kbps
Moonlight in Vermont
The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
Scarlet Ribbons for Her Hair
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
The Nearness of You
Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair
Walk Don’t Run
Composed in 1910 in the improbable key of Gb, Claude Debussy’s “The Maid with the Flaxen Hair” is the seventh in his first book of Preludes for solo piano. The composer’s inspiration was a mid-nineteenth century poem by Leconte de Lisle. The verse centers on a girl with beautiful hair, long eyelashes, and lips of cherry who is sitting in a bed of flowers — above her, a lark sings of love. The disembodied love is the narrator’s; the ensuing kisses are only imagined. Debussy asks that this short prelude be played very calmly and in a sweetly expressive manner (“très calme aet doucement expressif”). Beginning with its memorable two bar phrase, played flute-like by the right hand alone, the prelude beautifully expresses a kind of wistful longing: sensuous but restrained, sophisticated given its warm harmonies, but simple in both its writing and emotional affect.
The piece was a favorite of jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, to whom Mary Halvorson’s album Maid with the Flaxen Hair is dedicated. Smith recorded the Debussy at least three times (in 1956, 1962, and 1976). It was always a solo performance: versions can be found on The Johnny Smith Foursome and The Man with the Blue Guitar. Halvorson’s sweetly expressive, “doucement expressif” homage to Smith is made up of a series of duets with guitarist Bill Frisell. Together, they play ten numbers associated with the guitarist, who recorded the tunes over a decade, starting in 1952.
Frisell may have prompted Halvorson’s interest about Smith. Frisell studied with the guitarist in 1970 at the University of Northern Colorado. He wasn’t impressed at the time, characterizing Smith’s playing as “old fuddy duddy corny schmaltzy stuff.” Frisell didn’t even bother to go hear his famous teacher play live. He’s repented since then, finding, as have many of us, more and more beauty in Smith’s clearly conceived and perfectly executed lyrical playing. Frisell did copy down Smith’s arrangement of the folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”: it’s that arrangement that Halvorson plays “note for note” on this album. Moreover, she plays it on a guitar designed by Johnny Smith. Her performance is enchanting, simple to the point of starkness, withstanding Frisell’s burbling and sometimes threatening accompaniment. Halvorson plays notes plucked so cleanly they feel like pin pricks. In fact, the precision of the performances from both guitarists is remarkable.
The session begins (appropriately) with Smith’s one hit, “Moonlight in Vermont,” which he recorded in 1952 and featured a Stan Getz solo that made the saxophonist famous. (The original is on Smith’s 1956 Moonlight in Vermont, Roost.) “Maid with the Flaxen Hair” begins obliquely, with Halvorson playing a tremolo and Frisell single notes before the theme emerges from a kind of cloud of sound. This turns out to be the duo’s introduction: they stop completely and then play Debussy’s theme resonantly and out of tempo. The two then improvise intriguingly, with dark rumbles from one guitar and sharp pops of single notes from the other before they again subside and take up Debussy’s melody. Smith’s version of “Scarlet Ribbons” is gentle, a typical example of the fuddy duddy. Making use of a perky rhythm, oddly bent notes played seemingly a little out of phrase with each other, Halvorson and Frisell make the tune amusingly wacky, almost awkward — like the dance of a marionette. The duo is content to reproduce Smith’s folksy side: they include a version of “Shenandoah.”
For me, a highlight of this consistently beautiful disc is the pair’s version of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” a song that has been sung by vocalists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Carly Simon, and recorded by jazzmen such as Gerry Mulligan, Curtis Fuller, and Wes Montgomery. (Johnny Hartman’s is my favorite version.) More recently, Fred Hersch has recorded the tune. Here the duo plays the memorably haunting melody with the utmost respect, coming up with a passionate performance that is both precisely stated and rhythmically relaxed. The session ends with another of Smith’s hits … except that his version was not a popular success. The Ventures and then Chet Atkins recorded “Walk Don’t Run,” a number that convinced a lot of youngsters to pick up a guitar. Halvorson and Frisell play the tune brightly: somehow their version reminded me of a French cabaret song more than southern rock. This is a virtuoso version — light and danceable.
Every guitarist should listen carefully to this album. And then maybe some Johnny Smith.
By Michael Ullman