Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan – Small Town – ECM Records ECM 2525 [distr. by Universal Music Group]180-gram stereo double vinyl, 68:02 *****:

(Bill Frisell – guitar; Thomas Morgan – double bass)

After studying clarinet as a child, Bill Frisell took up the guitar. Eventually he studied at the prestigious Berklee School Of Music with contemporaries like Jon Damien and Jim Hall. Frisell’s ascension began in 1982 at ECM Records. As the tale goes, Pat Metheny was unable to perform on Paul Motian’s 1982 album, Psalms and recommended Frisell. This was the beginning of a three decade association with Motian. Additionally, the skilled guitarist formed a collaborative partnership with avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn (including the mind-bending Naked City) . But it was Frisell’s wide-ranging repertoire that defined him as a bandleader. On ECM releases like In Line, Rambler, and Lookout For Hope. Frisell’s musical influence reached into every corner of jazz, pop (Madonna’s “Live To Tell”), rock (Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”), classical Americana (Charles Ives/Aaron Copland) folk and bluegrass. He contributed two songs to the movie Finding Forrester, which featured a memorable arrangement of “Over The Rainbow” Other notable accomplishments include his role as musical director for Century Of Song. This was a festival that showcased artists like Ricki Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, Van Dyke Parks, Loudon Wainwright III and Suzanne Vega performing their original songs with brand new arrangements.

Frisell won a Best Contemporary Jazz Grammy for the 2005 album Unspeakable. He continues to record in various instrumental formats for a variety of labels. In a welcome return to ECM, Frisell reunites with bassist Thomas Morgan performing a sparkling double vinyl live set. Recorded at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York, the two jazz veterans redefine the concept of instrumental harmonics with dazzling connectivity. Their prior collaborations included Paul Motian’s The Windmills Of Your Mind Jakob Bro’s December Song and Time, and Frisell’s celebrated I Wish Upon A Star. With low-keyed creative grace, a variety of arrangements are elucidated by melodic delicacy and flair. Side 1 opens with a Paul Motion composition (“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago”) previously recorded by the iconic drummer with Frisell in 1984. The atmospheric number begins with a slightly echo-infused guitar lead that gently explores a winsome melody line. Morgan’s double bass is versatile, providing depth and shading. Frisell’s virtuosic inflection (including subtle fret work) is quietly passionate and resolute. In counter, Morgan glides with judicious timing. Over 11 minutes in length, the cut is hypnotic without any diminished momentum. In a tribute to post-bop saxophonist Lee Konitz, Frisell and Morgan reinvent “Subconscious Lee”. Morgan slow-cooking walk is a perfect framework for Frisell’s thoughtful articulation. A trace of country twang is a nice touch with the customary pristine notation.

With meditative grace, “Song For Andrew No. 1” (originally recorded on Andrew Cyrille’s The Declaration Of Musical Independence) exudes a gossamer resonance that touches on Spanish roots. It is achingly beautiful and evocative, approximating the kind of feeling that could serve as background music to a movie. Shifting to decidedly country imagery, “Wildwood Flower” (a staple of the Carter Family) has up tempo bluegrass-inspired riffs, but fits adroitly into the unique Frisell/Morgan dynamics. The title track is beautifully crafted with accessible lines that have “pocket” hooks and melancholy coloration. As Frisell explores a tempered dissonance, Morgan offsets with subtle rhythmic country rolls. Frisell returns to a quiet but potent finish.

In a surprising choice, Fats Domino’s New Orleans-flavored “What A Party” gets a finger-snapping joyous take. There is good humor and funkier grooves as Bill and Thomas seem to create a symmetrical tapestry with sly call and response inspired by bluesy licks. The chemistry is prevalent. Frisell and Morgan shared writing credits on “Poet-Pearl”. This particular duet underscores the juxtaposition of cohesion and independence. At times, each player seems to be exploring the meditative context with personal statements. Frisell’s playing is airy and touches on some gospel nuances. Morgan is polyrhythmic and offers a muscular counterpoint. In an unexpected finale, the pair take on the ultimate film theme “Goldfinger”. Of course, they slow-walk the tempo, but distill the compositional essence of John Barry’s menacing theme. It captures the cinematic gravitas of a James Bond flick, but in a jazz arrangement replete with memorable chording and notation. The repeat ending is a satisfying coda to a fine performance.

This 180-gram vinyl album is excellent. The stereo separation is flawless and allows the listener to follow the two instrumentalists as they navigate a variety of musical textures. Frisell’s guitar tonality is crisp, but expands with understated echo and reverberation. There is also a digital download that is vibrant. ECM’s trademark production conveys the intimacy of a jazz club performance with limited non-musical noise. The gatefold packaging and protective inner sleeves are top-notch.

Small Town is a worthy addition to any jazz library.

TrackList:
Side 1: It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago; Subconscious Lee
Side 2: Song For Andrew No. 1; Wildwood Flower
Side 3: Small Town; What A Party
Side 4: Poet-Pearl; Goldfinger

—Robbie Gerson

Link to more info and track samples through ECM: