Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan ‘Small Town’ (ECM) 5/5

Guitarist Bill Frisell returns in a leader (albeit in a joint setting) capacity to ECM for the first time since 1988 and the resulting live recording proves to be something of a revelation. Frisell has of course recorded as a sideman on the label in recent times, notably with Stefano Bollani and Andrew Cyrille. However, this is the first time the pairing of Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan have come together. The latter is now thirty-five and has built up an impressive CV that takes in recordings with John Abercrombie, Chris Potter, Tomasz Stanko and Craig Taborn among others, but this duet performance trumps all before it.

First of all, and as one might expect with the legendary Village Vanguard club, the sound is at once warm and intimate and lends itself perfectly to a bass-guitar pairing, with Frisell deploying a Gibson semi-acoustic guitar to wonderful effect. Secondly, the eclectic repertoire embraces the whole of Frisell’s career and offers up the odd surprise or two. Who would have expected, for example, an interpretation of that staple Bond theme, ‘Goldfinger’, yet Frisell and Morgan pull it off, with the latter creating a lovely bass line underneath the main theme and Frisell going off on tangents as only he knows how. So compelling a reading is this that it is every bit as punchy as the original brass orchestrations of the Shirley Bassey version, with marvellous improvising on a riff towards the end by Frisell and repetition of that same riff.

This writer especially enjoyed the deeply melodic tones of, ‘Wildwood flower’, and in general the combination of country-folk and jazz influences together marks Frisell out as a distinctive voice in the world of jazz guitar. For some escapism, the New Orleans R & B hues of, ‘What a party’, while Paul Motian with whom Frisell recorded is fondly evoked on a composition by the drummer, ‘It should have happened a long time ago’, that surfaced on an ECM album from 1985. In general, the telepathic rapport between Frisell and Morgan and supportive bass lines throughout significantly enhances the listener’s experience, and Thomas Morgan is to be commended for adding such depth to this performance. One of the year’s very best recordings for sure.

Tim Stenhouse