Bill Frisell, one of the elder statesmen of the electric guitar in America, and young acoustic bassist Thomas Morgan team up for a sublime set of tunes on Small Town. It was recorded live in 2016 at the storied Village Vanguard club in New York’s Greenwich Village. It’s a sublime date, mixing modern standards with some Frisell originals and a few choice cover tunes.
Frisell, who’s 66 this year, has a long history of playing at the Vanguard, and has recorded there with the late drummer Paul Motian as well as with saxophonist Joe Lovano. Morgan, a 35-year-old bassist from California, has also previously played and recorded with Frisell and Motian, too; in fact, the two played together at Motian’s last session, so they share a special rapport.
That’s apparent from the start when they turn in a sublime meditation on one of Motian’s best known tunes, “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago.” From there they launch into saxophonist Lee Konitz’s well-known tune “Subconscious Lee,” a bebop first recorded in 1949. It was an impromptu choice because the 89-year-old Konitz was in the house for this date, and it’s a splendid turn-around from the pensive opener. Morgan’s practically telepathic anticipation of Frisell’s next move is never more apparent than on this one.
“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,” Frisell says. “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.”
They both take off on a couple of covers, the hillbilly classic “Wildwood Flower” and especially the Fats Domino rocker “What A Party.” Both of these performances find Frisell in one of his sweet spots, tunes that capture the essence of what’s now known as Americana music, always with his light touch and distinctive approach to improvisation. He and Morgan play some delightful counterpoint in both, especially “Party.”
Frisell also excels at pop material of an esoteric nature, which perfectly describes the chestnut that closes the record, the theme from the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” Lush tremolos, surf-noir harmonies and Morgan’s bop-like rhythmic attack make this one lots of fun without ever becoming corny.
By no means to be overlooked are Frisell’s own works, particularly the pensive, languid “Poet – Pearl” and the lovely, melodic title tune. “Small Town” evokes dusty Americana in Frisell’s trademark way, the tricks rolling off his fretboard with ease, he and Morgan duetting and exploring harmonies with near nonchalance. You can hear the opening section of it on the first section of this promotional video from ECM:
It must’ve been a joy to be in the house on the night this set was recorded. The two are playing a short series of dates in late June and early July, ending at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 2. Details on his website.