Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Soundtrack for the Imagination: Small Town by Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan. (Photo: John Rogers)

The art of the duet is on full display on the recent ECM release by guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. The album is called Small Town yet the music is often larger than life, containing a pallette of places big and small. It hits so many imaginative and emotional notes that I consider it the best album of 2017.

I’ve been listening to the works of Bill Frisell for over thirty years and I’ve written extensively about his work on Critics At Large. I can’t help it. His remarkable sound – a mix of ethereal textures and multi-colours all created by his touch on the guitar and the various electronic devices he uses to create and manipulate them – continues to move me. John Scofield, an equally skilled guitarist and composer, called Frisell “The Wizard” at a public event I witnessed in Montreal during the sumptuous Jazz Festival back in the summer of 1994. To Scofield at the time, it was Frisell’s gumbo of gadgets that created a potion that could put the listener in a spell and I would have to agree. But over the years I grew less interested in the technical side of Frisell’s music, recognizing that the technical requirements are but a means to an end. His remarkable achievements as a musician, particularly as a sideman over the years, bear this out. This new album, Small Town (ECM), is the consummate Frisell experience. It’s his 35th release as a leader, dating back to 1983 when he debuted on the ECM label with the album titled In Line. That record featured solo tracks and several duets with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen. (I played guitar in those days so I was always interested in recordings of the new school of guitarists that emerged after Jim Hall, such as Pat Metheny.) In some respects Small Town, which was recorded in performance at the Village Vanguard in New York City in 2016, is a return to familiar musical territory that is full of the wit and wisdom of one of the jazz world’s greatest exponents. One look at his eclectic résumé will certainly attest to Frisell’s versatility as a guitarist.

But this new record took on new dimensions for me this past September while I was on vacation. When I was on the road with my wife travelling the highways of British Columbia and Alberta, Small Town provided an excellent soundtrack. As we drove across the land and into the Rocky Mountains, Frisell and Morgan’s musical interaction often enhanced our journey and the spectacular vistas that greeted us around every corner. During the trip we tuned out of most media, having had our fill of the doom and gloom of the past year. Listening to Frisell in the car quieted our minds and slowed our heart rates so that we could take it all in and nourish our souls. It worked beautifully. Now, when I listen to the album, I can hark back to our trip with fondness and how it brought me peace of mind and gave me hope.

On Small Town Frisell and Morgan play eight tracks that offer up a diversity of styles from be-bop to traditional folk songs made in America. The record opens with the Paul Motian composition “It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago,” an 11-minute piece that gracefully floats into the ears. Frisell played extensively with the late drummer, who died in 2011 at the age of 80. This is a fitting tribute to his bandmate who, like Frisell, was noted for his sense of touch on the drums going back to his formative years with the Bill Evans Trio in the sixties. Frisell learned a lot about the space between the notes from Motian, and this track is the best blend of Frisell’s sensibilities as a guitarist and what he learned from Motian. Another veteran musician, Lee Konitz, whom Frisell often played with, gets a good reading on the tune, “Subconscious Lee,” based on the chord changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love” by Cole Porter.

That earthy track is followed by a Frisell original called “Song For Andrew No. 1,” which likens us to the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock. This “Andrew” is a sentimental character full of charm. It’s my favorite track on the album because of its flow and thoughtful refrain. But it’s really the first part of a suite, in my mind, as the duo leads into the American classic “Wildwood Flower,” first published in 1860 but made famous by the Carter Family on their radio shows during the thirties. Frisell and Morgan really excel at this kind of folk song, playing it as if it they had written it themselves. This excellent performance leads to Frisell’s original and the title track, “Small Town,” a kind of country & western song for the 21st century. Its familiar notes are rooted in Frisell’s complete understanding of the American landscape. Over the years he’s written music for photographers such as Mike Disfarmer and the silent pictures of Buster Keaton. He seems to capture the feel and non-violent spirit of American life in sound. “Small Town” isn’t any specific place; it’s deep in the recesses of his imagination and we are all welcome to visit.

I particularly like the gentle sway and interaction of “Poet / Pearl.” Morgan’s technique and choice of notes really compliment Frisell’s story line. It’s a musical conversation we’re listening to on this track, rich in colour and quiet passion. The album and the set close with a great rendition of “Goldfinger,” the John Barry song from the James Bond movie. It’s an unhurried version that’s full of Frisell’s humour. At a concert in Toronto last June, the duo played “You Only Live Twice” to a packed house at the Church of the Redeemer on Bloor Street West. Perhaps a complete Bond songbook is in the works? I’d love to hear that!

This is my favourite album of the year because it speaks to me continuously about what is beautiful and positive in the world. I spent a great deal of quality time with Small Town beyond my regular listening and music reviews for Critics At Large. I realized that I wasn’t enjoying albums to their fullest by making critical comments, often after a couple of listens, about records that I thought were either important or at least essential to one’s psychological health. For me, this one does the trick. So whatever music is for you, dear reader, I will no longer try to influence. With this essay I’m going to focus on books about music and musicians going forward. If you find an album that you love, no matter what genre, give it the time it deserves. Take it on a road trip and let it be your soundtrack for the day, the week or the year.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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