Photo by John Rogers
Few musical situations are as intimate and rewarding as playing in a duo. All your thoughts and energy are focused on reacting to how another human is interpreting time, feel, and tone. For guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, that connection is deep and thankfully documented on their latest ECM album, Epistrophy, which is out on April 12th. It’s a continuation of the duo’s previous album for the label, Small Town, and actually was recorded at the same week-long gig at jazz’s most hallowed of halls, the Village Vanguard, in March of 2016.
Although Morgan and Frisell are a generation apart, several common threads connect them. For many years Frisell had a yearly engagement at the Vanguard with his wildly exploratory trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and shape-shifting drummer Paul Motian. Sadly, Motian passed away in November of 2011 but the sessions for his last album, Windmills of Your Mind, brought Frisell and Morgan together in a quartet with vocalist Petra Haden for an incredible set of standards. “I first met Thomas well before that,” says Frisell. “Joey [Baron] wanted to go over the music for an album [1999’s We’ll Soon Find Out] before Ron Carter got there. Thomas came and played everything just dead-on perfect. Plus, he looks younger than he is, so I thought, ‘Wow, this little kid just came in here and slayed this music.’” (Pro tip: Always prepare for a rehearsal as if it’s a gig.)
Because of those threads it makes sense to hear how well Frisell and Morgan work through “Mumbo Jumbo.” Although Motian’s drumming receives high praise in nearly every corner of the jazz world, his compositions have never received their due. Thankfully, Paul’s niece has created a beautiful two-volume songbook of his original compositions. “Mumbo Jumbo” is the most “out” track from Epistrophy, but also the most fun. Morgan’s big, wooly tone dances between the spots in Motian’s angular melody and Frisell’s exciting and unpredictable improvisations.
After recording two nights worth of music at the Vanguard, Frisell and Morgan went into Avatar Studios to mix the album along with engineer James Farber and ECM kingpin Manfred Eicher. Naturally, the mix is immaculate (a hallmark of ECM’s releases) with Frisell’s Collings I-35 sounding rich and full.
A year before the gigs that produced Small Town and Epistrophy, Frisell and Morgan played their first duo gigs ever at the Vanguard. The venue’s walls are steeped with the sound and history of jazz and it can be somewhat overwhelming to walk down into the basement and step on that stage. “It’s so heavy for me,” says Frisell. “Still I think, can this be real?” It was in the summer of 1969 when an 18-year-old Frisell first went to the Vanguard to see one of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s groups. “Over the years I’ve seen so many people there. Watching [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard is one of the heaviest things I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Getting up on the stage to play was a whole ’nother story and Frisell points to the late Jim Hall for making that happen. In the early ’70s, Frisell took eight lessons with Hall, who was one of his biggest heroes. “I was just some kid and I took some lessons with Jim,” says Frisell. “I had moved back to New York and I was walking down 6th Avenue near 9th Street and there’s Jim. I couldn’t believe he remembered me.” After exchanging pleasantries, Frisell sent Hall his debut album on ECM, In Line. “About a week later Jim called and said, ‘You were taking lessons from me and now I’m taking lessons from you!’’’
The first time Hall and Frisell played a gig together was a one-off in Minneapolis, but soon after the call came for a stint at the Vanguard. “It was through Jim that I first played the Vanguard and because of that, they started to invite me to bring in my own bands. I hate to say, but back then they wouldn’t give Paul a gig.” Owner Max Gordon thought the drummer’s music was just too adventurous for the room.
Over the next few months, Frisell and Morgan will be hitting the road—not as a duo, but a trio with drummer Rudy Royston. You can head over to billfrisell.com for the full list of tour dates and to keep an eye on Frisell’s many different groups and projects.