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No. 9 - Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Small Town (ECM/DG) - The SPEW countdown continues.


When I was a kid reviewer, I prided myself on my range. Yup, the nineteen year-old wunderkind who reviewed the Kinks and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Used to flash some of my music theory class chops. Ooh-ah. Once I might have been able to tell you when i heard the dorian or the mixolydian. Not any more. I now embrace that I'm a rock 'n' roll singer who appreciates jazz. I’d like to think that I’ve listened carefully and conscientiously enough to know shit from shinola. Put in my 10,000 hours … or whatever. 

So here's where I testify for an artist named Bill Frisell. He is a guitarist who can play almost anything. He’s performed or recorded with an amazing variety of artists, from the traditional to the avant-garde. His touch, tone, and technique are immediately recognizable, but he never descends to schtick or branding. 

Thirty-three years ago, Frisell teamed with tenor man Joe Lovano in a trio led by the exquisite drummer Paul Motian. They made three recordings together, It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago as a trio, two others as the core of quintet recordings.The title song from Happened is graceful and touching. It’s instrumental: there’s no singer, no lyric, but it’s the kind of tune that implies the lyric, subtly and beautifully. The song has always haunted me, and Frisell must be attached to it too because he includes it on Small Town, a 2016 recital with bassist Thomas Morgan, released by ECM in 2017. The version here, nearly double the length of the trio recording, is alone worth the price of admission. Gorgeous song, two musicians of extraordinary talent and deep empathy - it simply soars. 


Frisell’s versatility is partly to do with his having grown up with rock as much as jazz. He can play blistering rock. He can go toe to toe in extreme, outsider improvisation with the likes of John Zorn. He also has a gentle, poignant aspect that makes him this generation’s Jim Hall - endlessly tasteful, tuneful, articulate. And it’s that side of Frisell that dominates here. 



Small Town was recorded live at the legendary Village Vanguard with the kind of clarity one expects from the ECM label. It’s an eclectic program, including the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” and Fats Domino’s “What a Party. The duo give each implied idiom it’s due while still weaving them into the overall mood of the performance. Small Town is a testament to the arts of collaboration and improvisation from two terrific musicians. And one of this year’s best records. 

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