Guitarist-composer and sonic innovator Bill Frisell paid a visit to Paste Studios recently with his bass-playing partner, Thomas Morgan. Together the two brilliant instrumentalists performed tunes from their new ECM recording, Small Town, showing an uncommon empathy and a conversational chemistry on the title track, as well as Morgan’s beautiful “Pearl,” an intimate reading of John Barry’s James Bond theme “Goldfinger,” and a highly interactive rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy.”
Between songs, Frisell addressed his rare chemistry with Morgan while reminiscing about his first visit to the hallowed Village Vanguard in 1969, his first encounter with the music of Thelonious Monk in 1968 and his first date with a girl (it was a James Bond movie) in 1967.
“I’m almost afraid to talk about it,” the 66-year-old guitarist said about the fragile magic that exists between himself and Morgan when they play together. “As soon as you start talking about what happens, it’s like you can never get to what it really is. There’s this place in music, if you can stay in this sort of naive state, to me, that’s the best feeling where you’re never sure what’s coming next, and every moment you’re finding it. And what’s so extraordinary about Thomas is it seems like he anticipates…he always knows where I am, somehow.”
Added Morgan, “I just feel that every note that Bill plays feels right and it feels like I can relate to it. And it leads me to the next thing that I want to do. I always felt that with him.”
Frisell first met the California-born Morgan through drummer Joey Baron in the 1990s. Morgan went on to become the bassist of choice for a number of ECM artists including Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Danish guitarist Jako Bro, Cuban pianist David Virelles, Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, as well as former Bill Evans Trio drummer Paul Motian, a prolific composer and bandleader himself.
“Thomas and I both spent a lot of time playing with Paul Motian, separately. Then we played together on Paul’s last recording with Petra Haden (2011’s The Windmills of Your Mind), and I think Thomas and I really bonded on that one. We’d known each other for a while, hoping that more things would happen, and it was after that recording that we started to do quite a bit more.”
Frisell had made his recording debut with Motian on the drummer’s 1982 album, Psalm, and subsequently appeared on 20 Motian recordings, including several in a remarkably interactive trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano. As a leader in his own right, Frisell debuted with 1982’s In Line on ECM, and now has 40 albums to his credit. Over the years, he has also contributed to a remarkably diverse list of recordings by such artists as John Zorn, Elvis Costello, Ginger Baker, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Jackson, Lucinda Williams, Suzanne Vega, Loudon Wainwright III, Allen Toussaint, Rickie, Lee Jones, Marianne Faithful, Jan Garbarek, Vernon Reid, Hal Willner, David Sanborn, Charles Lloyd, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henry, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and Daniel Lanois. Australian filmmaker Emma Franz recently captured the guitarist’s incredible eclecticism in her captivating two-hour documentary, Bill Frisell: A Portrait.
For Frisell, recording Small Town live at the Village Vanguard was “a huge deal.” As he explained, “I never dreamt I’d ever be able to play at that place.”
In the summer of 1969, when he was 18, Frisell’s parents moved from Colorado to New Jersey. “I went to the Vanguard for the first time that summer,” he said. “And over time I saw Sonny Rollins play in there, I saw Charles Mingus play there, I saw Rahsaan Roland Kirk play there…Hank Jones, Tony Williams, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Dexter Gordon, Lee Konitz…I don’t know who all. That room is like a super-fine old musical instrument.”
With the Paul Motian Trio and as a leader of his own groups, Frisell has shown a special affinity for the music of Thelonious Monk, whose centennial is being celebrated this year throughout the jazz world. Frisell’s fractured comping, unpredictable lines and minimalist instincts on a given phrase mark him as a consummate interpreter of Monk’s music. In his Paste Studio session, Frisell favored the in-house audience and at-home streamers with a brilliant interpretation of Monk’s “Epistrophy.”
“I got to see Monk live in the summer of 1968 in Colorado,” he recalled. “I had recently discovered Wes Montgomery and that was a big complete life-changing thing. Hearing his music opened up so many things for me. He was coming to Denver to play and my Dad got us tickets to see him in this traveling Newport show, but it turned out that he passed away just before the concert. So I never got to see him live. But we went to the concert anyway and on the bill was Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Dionne Warwick and Gary Burton’s quartet with Larry Coryell, Bob Moses and Steve Swallow—another major seismic brain-altering even for me.”
For Frisell, the Monk “sets the standard for what to strive for. Nobody ever played like that. And we still have to deal with, ‘What was he doing?’”
Frisell and Morgan will be performing in Buffalo on Dec. 2 as part of the Albright-Knox Art of Jazz Series, and on Dec. 7-8 at the Jazz Standard in New York City.
Watch the duo’s full Paste Studio session below: