Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan’s Epistrophy

cover artAll jazz music can be described as an exploration, of course. At its best, the musicians whether solo or in an ensemble can be heard as they improvise, listening to and playing off of each other as they go, never knowing from moment to moment what the other will play, but being committed to answer it somehow. It is perhaps easier to notice this sort of interplay in the playing of a duo, and this particular duo of guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan is one of the most transparent you’ll encounter.

They demonstrated their deep musical empathy on 2017’s Small Town, which like this date was recorded live at New York’s venerable Village Vanguard. This return gig is just as full of quiet delight, with some similarities and some notable differences.

Where they dabbled in rock and roll and bop, and included a couple of Frisell originals on Small Town, here there are no originals, but they focus on some of the nooks and crannies of the American songbook. One of my favorite moments of transparent exploration on this disc comes about five minutes into the opening piece, the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein tune “All In Fun,” one of the memorable songs from the not-so-memorable musical Very Warm for May. That 1939 show, the duo’s last together, also produced one of the best-known jazz standards, “All The Things You Are.” Anyway, during the open improv section here, the fun comes from hearing these two work through the changes, swap leads and just generally give a master class in improvising with heightened attention.

In all honesty, listen closely and you’ll probably find similar moments in each of these pieces. That sort of playing is not an occasional thing with this duo.

From the jazz standards realm those include Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and the Sinatra chestnut “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” which aptly rounds out the program. Both Frisell and Morgan played with the influential drummer Paul Motian and again they include one of his compositions here, the rather intense “Mumbo Jumbo.” At the center of the program are two starkly different compositions by Thelonius Monk, the witty, angular “Epistrophy” and the lush ballad “Pannonica.” Frisell and Morgan on the latter nearly out-Monk Monk, breaking this tune down to its pieces and reassembling it like a puzzle in a funhouse mirror – I had to chuckle at the brief section in which it becomes a jaunty boulevardier strut.

It’s not a Bill Frisell program without some Americana. The hillbilly classic “Wildwood Flower,” has one of the most durable melodies in the genre, and Frisell and Morgan are obviously still discovering new things about because although it appeared on *Small Town* it repeats here. The surprise is that it acts as an intro to Doc Pomus’s versatile “Save The Last Dance For Me.” And I’ll just say for the record that I think “Red River Valley” is one of the hardest of American folk songs to cover without descending into schmaltz or parody, but these two do just that, so bravo.

On the other hand, the only way to do up a main theme from a 1960s James Bond movie is to revel in the luxurious romantics of the piece, and Frisell and Morgan succeed again. After taking on “Goldfinger” last time out, they take a dive into John Barry’s deeply loungey “You Only Live Twice.” Don’t ask me how they pull off this piece written for studio orchestra with only 10 strings between them (although I’ll venture it has a lot to do with Frisell’s mastery of the guitar’s tone), but well, there it is. Of course John Barry can hardly write a bad melody, and this one has melody and counter-melody to spare. I enjoy this lovely piece just fine without a martini to hand, but I’m sure one would only increase the joy it brings.

It is indeed all in fun, so grab this disc and prepare for epiphanies aplenty, of the musical kind.

(ECM, 2019)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.