Small Town presents guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan in a program of duets, the poetic chemistry of their playing captured live at New York’s hallowed Village Vanguard. Frisell made his debut as a leader for ECM in 1983 with the similarly intimate In Line. The guitarist’s rich history with the label also includes multiple recordings by his iconic cooperative trio with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, culminating in Time and Time Again in 2007. Small Town begins with a tribute to Motian in the form of a searching, 11-minute interpretation of the late drummer’s composition “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago,” the duo’s counterpoint yielding a hushed power. Morgan has appeared on several ECM albums of late, as bassist of choice for Tomasz Stanko, Jakob Bro, David Virelles, Giovanni Guidi and Masabumi Kikuchi. Small Town sees Frisell and Morgan pay homage to jazz elder Lee Konitz with his “Subconscious Lee,” and there are several country/blues-accented Frisell originals, including the hauntingly melodic title track. The duo caps the set with an inimitable treatment of John Barry’s famous James Bond theme “Goldfinger.”
A1 It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago, Written-By – Paul Motian 11:05
A2 Subconscious Lee, Written-By – Lee Konitz 7:31
B1 Song For Andrew No. 1, Written-By – Bill Frisell 9:35
B2 Wildwood Flower, Written-By – Joseph Philbrick Webster, Maud Irving 5:08
C1 Small Town, Written-By – Bill Frisell 8:57
C2 What A Party, Written-By – Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Pearl King 6:41
D1 Poet – Pearl, Written-By – Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan 12:04
D2 Goldfinger, Written-By – Anthony Newley, John Barry, Leslie Bricusse 7:01
Small Town presents guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan in a program of duets, captured live at New York’s Village Vanguard. Frisell made his debut as a leader for ECM in 1983 with the similarly intimate In Line, establishing one of the most distinctive sounds of any modern guitarist. Frisell’s rich history with the label also includes multiple recordings with Paul Motian culminating in Time and Time Again in 2007. Small Town begins with a tribute to Motian in the form of a searching, 11-minute interpretation of the late drummer’s composition “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago,” the duo’s counterpoint yielding a hushed power. Morgan, who also played with Motian, has appeared on ECM as bassist of choice for Tomasz Stanko, Jakob Bro, David Virelles, Giovanni Guidi and Masabumi Kikuchi.
Frisell first met the California-born Morgan through Joey Baron in the 1990s, when the bassist was “very impressive, even though he was still a kid, basically,” recalls the guitarist. “Later, we played together at a session led by drummer Kenny Wollesen. In the midst of all this action there, I heard this bass note that just felt so present and right – even though Thomas was 40 or 50 feet away from me in a big studio. It struck me. And we played together again at Paul Motian’s last session, so it’s special that we both have this connection to Paul and his music. I asked Thomas to sit in with some of my groups, and we developed this rapport. Thomas has this way of almost time-traveling, as if he sees ahead of the music and sorts it all out before he plays a note. He never plays anything that isn’t a response to what I play, anticipating me in the moment. That sort of support makes me feel weightless, like I can really take off.
“Thomas and I are also similar in that we’re both quiet personalities,” Frisell continues. “Whenever I play guitar, that’s my true voice. It’s not so dissimilar with Thomas, I think. Playing the bass is his natural way of expressing himself. And I'm going to steal a phrase from the saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who once said to me before a gig, ‘I’m really looking forward to singing with you.’ I think that way about playing with Thomas, too. He really plays the song, whether it’s a Fats Domino tune or something abstract – the energy comes from the same place.”
“It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago,” the opener for Small Town, had its studio debut on the 1985 ECM album of the same name by the trio of Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. When Frisell and Morgan played the piece at the Vanguard, “the spirit of Paul seemed to hover over us,” Frisell says. “There’s a singing quality to Paul’s music. It’s not like math – it comes from an almost vocal place. The song is deceptively simple, just the melody and one chord, basically; but it conjures this atmosphere that you can really move around in. It’s like a structure without walls; it doesn’t box you in. It’s magical to me, and moving.”
Frisell and Morgan also paid homage to two living jazz icons at the Vanguard, playing Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” and Frisell’s melody-rich original “Andrew Cyrille,” dedicated to the titular drummer. The guitarist has worked with Konitz on multiple occasions (including Kenny Wheeler’s 1997 ECM album Angel Song), and the saxophonist was in the audience at the Vanguard when Frisell and Morgan recorded Small Town. The duo pulled out his bebop “Subconscious Lee” of 1949 as an impromptu tribute. “Andrew Cyrille” made its debut in different form as “Song for Andrew” on the drummer’s ECM album of last year, The Declaration of Musical Independence, which featured Frisell. “Andrew is a real elder of the music, his experience going all the way back to Coleman Hawkins and then onto Cecil Taylor through today. There’s a lot of music running through guys like Andrew and Lee.”
Guitaristically, “Small Town” has its basis in the playing of Maybelle Carter of The Carter Family, an exemplar of American country music in the 1920s and ’30s. “Maybelle Carter has been a big influence on me,” Frisell notes. “Actually, she’s a big influence on most non-classical guitar players, whether they know it or not, with that way of playing melody and rhythm simultaneously.” The guitarist makes another nod to The Carter Family on Small Town by playing the folk tune “Wildwood Flower,” made famous by the group.
A different sort of classic American music is symbolized by Fats Domino’s “What a Party,” an off-kilter example of New Orleans rock’n’roll that Frisell and Morgan recast in a pointillistic way at the Vanguard, at the bassist’s suggestion. “I think it’s a tune that belies the composer’s craft, giving the impression it was discovered rather than composed,” Morgan says. “The opening bass line is ingeniously simple, and the melody has a vocal quality. It wouldn’t seem to lend itself to being played instrumentally, but Bill is the perfect person to do it. His sound is as expressive as a voice, and he weaves the rhythmic and vocal parts together so that you somehow hear more than what’s being played.”
Small Town also includes “Poet – Pearl,” a Morgan original bolstered with a Frisell intro. “It was one of my very first compositions,” Morgan says. “I came up with the melody for ‘Pearl’ on the subway when I was in my first year at school in New York. Talking about how I wrote it and the title, Bill pointed out that a pearl is rare and beautiful and takes an element of chance to find, like that piece in a way. I think those words have nice connotations not only for the song but also for our collaboration.” The duo rounds off their album with a totem from Frisell’s youth, “Goldfinger.” He recalls: “The atmosphere of that song takes me back to the early 1960s, when I was first getting fired up about playing the guitar, but also when I was learning to drive, doing things like going to downtown Denver on a date to see a James Bond movie. The music itself is so cool, with some pretty amazing things going on in the melody and harmony. Because the tune became so popular, you can miss some of the deeper musical things going on – they become almost subliminal.”
Reflecting on the Vanguard and the experience of making Small Town, Frisell concludes: “Even though I’ve played ‘It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago’ what must be hundreds and hundreds of times, it always feels different somehow. I mean, it’s the same melody, the same song, but it’s not fixed – it lives. The music lives beyond Paul, just as it will live past us. The Vanguard, too – the notes keep resonating off the walls there, night after night. The listeners down through the years are part of that. They were there with us, as they were for Bill Evans or John Coltrane. Now the music we played on that night is on a record for more people to listen to, the notes resonating further. It’s incredible if you think about it.”
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Sublime collaboration between these two extraordinary musicians. Recalls Evans and LaFaro at the Vanguard. Sound quality is A+, an audiophile’s dream but the musicianship is what makes this such a fantastic record.
'Small Town' is in the top five best records ever put out by ECM
I can understand how controversial this statement may be to some, but this is just my honest opinion: 'Small Town' is in the top five best records ever put out by ECM. Tranquil, personal; it sounds like the end of an era or just something large altogether. Whether or not that is a positive or negative thing, I leave to the listener just as it was left for me by these two outstanding musicians. Thomas Morgan has to be one of my favorite musicians currently. I'm a huge fan of his work with the Jakob Bro Trio and he's the main reason I purchased this album. Bill Frisell obviously IS guitar. So there was no gamble with his name. The man is great and as evidenced here, only gets better some how. This had to be a real treat for anyone there at the Village Vanguard to witness it in person. Very respectful crowd i.e. Not a ton of crowd noise except for the well-deserved applause after pieces and the occasional glass clinking here and there. I plan on buying this record for my brother as a gift with my next paycheck. 'Small Town' is a welcome companion today with all of this desert rain and thunder we're experiencing right now. Beautiful release by two top musicians.
Morgan’s connected to Frisell’s fingers or his mind
Speaking of a guitar/bass duo, I immediately hit upon Jim Hall’s two works, “Alone Together (Milestone, ’72)” and “Jim Hall & Red Mitchell (Artistshouse, ’78.)” Both records deliver authentic jazz vibes to us. Comparing with those records, “Small Town” gives us a somewhat different impression to us, even though recorded in a similar situation of live house. “Small Town” is lyrically melodious to our ears. What kind of factors bring different results? Does this come from their music selections, or from their different play styles? Is this the outcome of an advanced recording technique? Or, does this originate from a disparity in policy of labels? Bill Frisell devotes himself wholly to single tone playing throughout the album, while Hall’s interspersing chord playing. “It Should Happened A Long Time Ago” starts like a Zen dialogue, as if Frisell and Thomas Morgan are feeling for the meaning of each sound. Frisell’s indescribable distress for losing his friend is touching. Morgan is sympathetic to his mood, responds with a grave, sorrowful bass tone. On “Subconscious-Lee,” they proceed getting entangled each other. Morgan is rather reticent, never showing off, but supporting solidly enough to Frisell’s frugal expression. Frisell talks about playing with Morgan to Bill Milkowsky, “there’s something so fragile that happens when we play….Sometimes it makes me afraid to talk about it because I don’t want to break the spell.” (DownBeat July, ’17) “Song For Andrew No.1” makes us feel like seeing an end roll of a nouvelle vague film. Sweet and melancholic melody, Frisell plays, is somewhat nostalgic and idyllic. Frisell’s byword like looping play is in full effect here. On the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” the two engage in a lively dance at a slower tempo than the original. As to playing music which shaped him as a youngster, Frisell explains that it’s like having cataract surgery and suddenly being able to see clearly. Frisell’s title track “Small Town” carries on the country and western flavor from the previous tune. Playing lonesome melody, he might have been longing for days in Denver, where he grew up. Fats Domino’s “What A Party” is a groove ride on a RB vehicle. They enjoy simple riff of the original melody. On “Poet - Pearl,” their Zen like conversation marked the climax. “It’s like Morgan’s connected to Frisell’s fingers or his mind. Whatever Frisell do, Morgan’s just instantly there.” (DownBeat July, ’17) They walk up and down the phrase, well-known on everybody’s lips, over and over on “Gold Finger.” Inserted free download code is grateful and Mayo Bucher’s cover painting is also appealing.