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.”