An amazingly exploratory performance that ties together a lost colleague, a fabled basement club, and some breathtaking improvisations.
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.
Schecter SLS Elite-4 Review
A lightning-fast neck and a solid electronics package grace this 4-string with a boutique vibe.
Clip 1: Classic voicing. Flat EQ. Pickups equal blend.
Clip 2: Funk voicing. Coil tapped. Treble and bass boost with slight compression, and pickups blended equally.
Clip 3: Modern voicing. Pickups equal blend. Slight treble and bass boost.
Well built. Fantastic neck.
The throaty mids tend to sit in the wrong frequencies for my taste.
Ease of Use:
Schecter Guitar Research has been championing the “not scared” column for a while now with their forward designs, and in the process has garnered love from players ranging from funk and rock icons to modern shred and metal players. They’ve recently been introducing many new designs that push even their own elevated standards to new heights. One such instrument is the SLS Elite-4, a formidable member of Schecter’s Diamond Series that boasts a boutique-bass vibe in an off-the-rack offering. The SLS Elite-4 is crafted in South Korea and packed with goodies that will satisfy the discerning player looking for high-end components, slick playability, and modern appointments.
Where the Elite Meet
Before I even start on the bass, let me say that its case (sold separately for $139) has black hardware. It’s not a huge deal, but, man, after staring at stainless latches all my life, the black is a nice, cool change. Once I opened the molded case, I was greeted by a stunning bass finished in what I would call an atypical brown burst, which starts dark around the bridge area and then blossoms at the horns in a pretty, blonde finish. The Elite-4 is not heavy, at just a touch over 8 1/2 pounds, and the narrow “C” neck had me giddy from the jump.
The SLS Elite-4 quickly charmed me with its interesting materials and construction. The combination of the figured flame-maple top with a slight arch and ivory binding really sells the beauty of the bass. And after flipping the Elite-4 over, a sweet triple-stripe of walnut and padauk is revealed, sandwiched between the swamp ash on the body and the maple on the neck.
The Schecter designers built in some other terrific features, such as the offset abalone inlay markers that reverse after the 12th fret. The 24-fret design provides full access to the upper realm, the bridge can be top loaded or strung though, and I was treated to super-fast action thanks to the perfect factory setup.
For pickups, Schecter went with Fishman Fluence Soapbars, which have some spectrum to them. The sound is controlled by a 2-band Fishman EQ, a blend knob, and a volume knob that pulls double duty as a push/pull coil splitter. There’s also a 3-way toggle for switching between classic, funk, or modern voicings.
So Many Choices
After plugging the bass into an Eden Terra Nova with a matching Eden 2x10 cabinet, I set the EQ flat and the switch to classic (position 1) with both pickups engaged and blended equal. This initial tone was a bit subdued, so I went to the onboard fixers. First, I experimented with the 3-way switch, which provides a mid scoop in the funk position and a mid-boost in the modern position. The modern setting helped my initial setting the most, and the bass really jumped alive when I tapped to single-coil. I went back through the settings with the coil split, and even with the output slightly diminished, I liked the tone better. I loved the funk preset with the single-coil engaged, and probably could have played this setting all night.
I hadn’t even gotten started with the onboard EQ at that point.The two independent EQ controls on the Fishman preamp push the tonal realm of the bass into a new place. The Elite-4 needs a decent amount of bass and treble boost to dial in some really nice definition, and once it’s there, the tone is great. The bass control does an excellent job in boosting the low end and rounding out the signal. I found the modern setting and its overall mid-boost approach to be a bit too throaty for me in this configuration. For the modern voicing, I preferred pushing the volume knob back in and easing the bass up a bit to get a more balanced sound.
Again, it was the funk voicing with the single-coil setting that conquered the day. With the voicing
dipping out the mids, the bass felt and sounded like a souped-up Jazz, yet went further than that—becoming a refined instrument with charm and manners. Paired with the speediness of the neck and grace of the body, I was playing allthe fun licks (and way too fast, I might add).
I appreciate the refinements of the SLS Elite-4. The body is gorgeous, and the little things like the binding and the easy access to the dual action truss rod are small examples of user-friendly design and execution. On the tonal side, the mids could be a bit harsh at times, for my taste. The ebony fretboard offsets this. However, it’s possible the combination of the maple and swamp ash could be pushing the brightness meter up high on the instrument. All that said, one can easily dial up whatever’s needed in no time with the onboard Fishman pre. Along with its solid construction and features, the SLS Elite-4 is a fine instrument that will provide years of great playing.
Watch the Review Demo:
Tools for the Task: Tuning Apps
Misplaced your tuner? Dead battery? There’s an app for that.
When your tuner’s acting up, you can’t find it, or don’t have (gasp) one, there are plenty of phone app tuners that feature other built-in goodies, too. Here are 10 apps, with most also having a free version.
FENDERFender Tune Player PackThis enhanced-accuracy tuner with a variety of modes and tunings is part of a tool kit that includes chords, scales, beats, and a metronome.
YOUSICIANGuitarTuna ProThis customizable app for iOS and Android has over 100 different tunings for 15 instruments and features a variety of tools, including a chord guide, ear training, and other exercises.
Providing accurate readings down to .01 of a cent, this app for iOS and Android features tuning modes for stage and studio, as well as tuning history to record variations over time.
This easy-to-use app provides five different tuning modes for different situations, while offering a variety of advanced features.
Featuring PolyTune technology, which allows all the strings to be strummed and tuned simultaneously, this iOS app can be set for drop tunings up to five semitones down.
This iOS app offers four unique tuning modes, 100 temperaments, and 130 tunings for 40 different instruments.
PROGUITARPro Guitar Tuner Premium
This chromatic tuner for iOS and Android features a large library of different tunings and provides high-quality samples of real instruments to tune by ear, if that’s preferred.
Featuring the display style of their popular pedal tuner, this app has two different skins to choose from and brings Boss’s tuning technology to iOS and Android devices.
Featuring an easy-to-read note-wheel display, this app has selectable temperaments and notations, and reports tuning accuracy of +/- .01 semitone.
N-TRACK SOFTWAREn-Track Tuner Pro
Featuring six different views to choose from, this app offers both Western and Latin note namings, and the ability to calibrate for non-standard tunings.