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Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan: Small Town


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Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan: Small Town
In Emma Franz's revelatory documentary, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, the guitarist talks about the many guitars he owns, and how he rarely gets to plays them—the consequence, amongst other things, of the plight musicians face when traveling by air these days. Not three months after the film's premiere at South By Southwest this past March, comes Small Town—a live recording from New York's heralded Village Vanguard that represents a number of firsts for the veteran guitarist.

It's Frisell's first album for ECM as a leader/co-leader since 1988's Lookout for Hope; though, after a couple of decades of considerable activity as a guest on the label, he's begun to resurface in recent years on albums including Andrew Cyrille's unexpected (and excellent) 2016 ECM outing, The Declaration of Musical Independence, and pianist Stefano Bollani's wonderfully optimistic Joy in Spite of Everything (2014).

It's also the first time, at least in some time, that he can be seen with a Gibson semi-acoustic guitar in-hand rather than the solid body Fender (or Fender-like) guitars that have largely dominated his work in recent years (though he was seen similarly using a Gibson ES-335 at his mind-blowing "Bill Frisell Plays Lennon" show, from the 2012 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival). That said, Frisell demonstrates an unalterable truth about guitar...or any instrument, for that matter. Yes, his Gibson(s) lacks the intrinsic "twang" for which his Fenders have been so important on many of his roots/Americana-centric recordings. Still, from his very first note/chord on an eleven-minute exploration of Paul Motian's title track from It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago (ECM, 1985)—the former bandleader/drummer's first album to feature the trio that, with Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, lasted over a quarter century before Motian's passing in 2011, and recently collected into one of the label's Old & New Masters reissue box sets—the sound—the everything—is unmistakably Frisell.

But, most importantly, Small Town represents the guitarist's first recorded encounter with Thomas Morgan in the intimate setting of a duo, the double bassist having first shown up on Frisell's film soundtrack homage, When You Wish Upon a Star (Okeh, 2016). As superb as When You Wish Upon a Star undeniably is, it's in the more naked, completely vulnerable environs of the duo—where the need for musical trust is, perhaps, at its most crucial—that the profound chemistry shared by these two thoroughly synchronized players becomes even clearer.

Frisell's discography (as leader, co-leader and guest) has, since his first major recording, Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), grown almost exponentially...a pace that Morgan seems to be matching, albeit not yet as a leader. Still just 35, Morgan has already built up a remarkable rich and varied résumé with other ECM artists including John Abercrombie (2009's Wait Till You See Her); the late Masabumi Kikuchi (2012's Sunrise); Tomasz Stanko's New York Quartet (2013's Wisława ); Chris Potter (2013's The Sirens); Jakob Bro 2015's Gefion); Giovanni Guidi (2013's City of Broken Dreams); Craig Taborn (2013's Chants); and David Virelles (2014's Mbókò), amongst others—and that's not to mention non-label work with significant artists ranging from David Binney and Dave Liebman to Steve Coleman and Dan Weiss.

A bassist whose rare intuition is praised by Frisell as possessing "this way of almost time- traveling, as if he sees ahead of the music and sorts it all out before he plays a note...anticipating me in the moment," the guitarist also makes an important assessment of something else the pair share. Referring to the two of them as "quiet personalities," Frisell enthuses about playing with Morgan: "Whenever I play guitar," he says, "that's my true voice. It's not so dissimilar with Thomas, I think. Playing the bass is his natural way of expressing himself."

Indeed, whether on record or seeing him perform, Morgan exudes a quiet introspection. Like Frisell, he seems to possess an innate ability to take a single piece of music and interpret it so differently each and every time—even with (or, perhaps, as a result of) a context that is so relatively spare and sketch- like. Frisell may be one of jazz's most fervent followers of the concept that any music can provide endless grist for exploration, with the guitarist still playing songs—originals, jazz standards, Great American Songbook tunes, and country, blues and bluegrass songs—that he first introduced, live or on record, in some cases as far back as two or more decades ago.

Motian's "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago," its simple but memorable melody providing both Frisell and Morgan with a context to explore surprisingly expansive territory—even as the pair remains completely aligned with the heart of the song at all times—is an atmospheric, gentle and attractive entry point to this 70-minute set that covers a lot of musical ground. While Frisell's tone is generally less effects- heavy than on some of his other projects, a multilayered cloud of loops can still be found closing the track, just as a thick tremolo infuses his countrified, Maybelle Carter-inspired title track.

Other originals including Frisell's rubato yet eminently lyrical "Song for Andrew No. 1"—first heard on its namesake, Andrew Cyrille's The Declaration of Musical Independence but here expanded to also reference "Worse and Worse," from Frisell's Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006)—and "Poet," an introduction, written by the guitarist, to Morgan's sole compositional contribution to Small Town, "Pearl." One of the bassist's first compositions, its melody was written on a subway during his first year at school in New York. That these two interconnected pieces—both thematically driven but with "Pearl" being the more change-heavy of the two—seem like two peas in a pod only goes to further demonstrate the deep connection that's evolved between Frisell and Morgan...and over a relatively short period of time.

An impromptu "Subconscious Lee" was pulled out spontaneously when the duo learned that the song's composer, saxophonist Lee Konitz—with whom Frisell has collaborated on Kenny Wheeler's 1998 ECM masterpiece, Angel Song, and the completely impromptu quartet date, Enfants Terrible: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2012)—was at the show as a spectator. It provides Frisell and Morgan a chance to flex their more traditional jazz chops with a swinging pulse, even as Frisell injects his characteristic idiosyncrasies and wit, bolstered firmly by Morgan—here, as throughout the set, ever the empathic accompanist and contrapuntal conversationalist.

If there's any single precedent for Morgan, it would have to be the late Charlie Haden—a bassist who, like Morgan, was capable of playing in any musical context, while always favouring the one perfectly right note over an unnecessary many. While Morgan proves himself a beyond-capable player, it's in his ever-ideal choices, keen intuition and forward-thinking combination of push and pull that make him one of the most in-demand double bassists to have emerged in the past decade or so. Whether it's on a relatively faithful version of the folkloric "Wildwood Flower" (written by Joseph Philbrick Webster and Maud Irving in 1860, but made popular by the Carter Family in 1928) or an initially almost unrecognizable look at Fats Domino's "What a Party"—its rocking roots only emerging well over a minute in, along with the more familiar melodies—Morgan simultaneously provides both the kind of firm anchor and responsive melodic foil that allows Frisell the freedom to move at will, as virtually all eight tracks evolve organically and inevitably...all while, at the same time, doing so with surprising unpredictably.

The Village Vanguard is a perfect venue for live recordings, in particular intimate ones such as Small Town, with over 70 renowned live albums recorded in this legendary venue, from John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan and McCoy Tyner to Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett and Frisell himself, on the "East" disc of the two-disc East/West (Nonesuch, 2005). With Paul Zinman sharing the Village Vanguard soundboard with James Farber—the latter, well-known to ECM fans for his work at Avatar Studios, where Small Town was mixed by Farber, label head/producer Manfred Eicher, Frisell and Morgan—Small Town manages to sonically capture a live ambience while, other than applause at the end of some songs, its crystal clarity and warmth also belie its origins.

In his 2011 All About Jazz interview, Bill Frisell: Ramping It Up, the guitarist responded to the idea, held by some, that his career can be defined by "periods," saying: "For me, all those things [his varied musical interests] have been pretty much there as long as I've been recording. I don't really think of it that way, but if I'm cornered and have to think about it, all the stuff has always been there. I always get uncomfortable being put into slots—that first I was an 'ECM' guy, then I was a 'Downtown' guy, and then I was an 'Americana' guy. While I was making ECM records, I was also playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson. All these things have been happening simultaneously."

Six years later, with other recordings and now Small Town, Frisell proves that it's possible to bring together original music, country music, jazz standards and more in an unfettered duet setting. At the end of the day, categories matters not; genres matter not; sources matter not. Great music is where you find it and, in the hands of two players as liberated as Frisell and Morgan, anything from a rock and roll tune to a film score's title song ("Goldfinger," played with a combination of drama and levity, surprisingly capturing all the song's key arrangements despite there being just two players) can come together in a program that feels not just cohesive; it feels as though these eight songs were made to be played together. And whether Small Town's sequencing mirrors the order of the performance or not also matters not; either way, every one of these seemingly disparate musical pieces are, in the hands of Frisell and Morgan, completely of a kind.

It's been a long time since Frisell has made a duo recording...almost 35 years, in fact, dating right back to the guitarist's very first solo album, In Line (ECM, 1983), where half the program was overdubbed solo guitar, the other half a duo session with Norwegian double bassist and ECM label mate Arild Andersen. That Frisell's first album for ECM as a leader/co-leader in three decades should also be a duo recording with a double bassist may be—is, most likely—purely coincidental, but there's a wonderful sense of closing a circle with Small Town.

Thirty years on, Frisell is still a humble, quiet and considerate musician who seems as awe- struck, at times, to be playing with the many greats with whom he's collaborated as they do him. But as a player, a composer and a conceptualist, he's come a long way. Partnered with Morgan—yet to reveal himself as a leader, but at this point quickly becoming one of his generation's most ubiquitous, recognizable bassists and, like Frisell, a player who seems to quietly intuit what often goes past many others—Frisell has released an album that brings so many of his personal touchstones together while, at the same time, bringing its diverse program together into a unified whole.

No doubt there's plenty more to come from these two—including a number of tour dates this coming summer—but with Small Town, Frisell has clearly found another ideal musical foil to add to his growing cadre of musicians with whom he collaborates on a regular basis. Intimate, beautiful and deep, while at the same time knotty, witty and curiously skewed, Small Town delivers, in many ways, on the promise of In Line's five duo tracks 35 years on, with a live set that proves great music isn't just where you find it; it's everywhere.

Track Listing

It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago; Subconscious Lee; Song for Andrew No. 1; Wildwood Flower; Small Town; What a Party; Poet - Pearl; Goldfinger.


Bill Frisell: guitar; Thomas Morgan: double bass.

Album information

Title: Small Town | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records

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