Bill Frisell’s first album as a bandleader was just guitar and bass (and lots of overdubs). Who knew that this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist would ever revisit that format? Almost thirty-five years later, the bassist is Thomas Morgan, and the album, Small Town, is a live recording from the Village Vanguard from just a few months ago It’s hard to hear online, but you can catch the two when they make a relatively rare Brooklyn appearance at Roulette on June 30 at 8. Advance tix are just $20, and having seen Frisell in this particular borough, it’s not a safe bet to assume that the show won’t sell out.
The first track is an eleven-minute version of Paul Motian’s Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. Resonant, starry, minimalist motives give way to a distantly ominous big-sky theme spiced with wispy harmonics and Morgan’s lurking presence. A wistful waltz develops and is then subsumed by brooding pedalpoint with stark gospel allusions as Frisell builds a hypnotic web of contrapuntal loops. If this doesn’t end up in a Twin Peaks episode, that would be criminal.
The two make a briskly caravanning stroll out of Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee, threatening to take it down into the depths but never completely submerging. Morgan hangs back and punches in gingerly throughout most of the spacious, uneasy ballad Song for Andrew No. 1 (an Andrew Cyrille shout-out). Referneces to a famously infirm New Orleans funeral tune flicker amidst Frisell’s lingering single-note lines as he waits til the very end to go for the macabre.
He does Wildwood Flower a lot – this one offers genially blithe, bluegrassy contrast and some neatly understated counterpoint between the two musicians.
The title track expands on the old Scottish folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme, Frisell finally flinging some noir and some wryly muted surf riffs into the purposeful, steady walk as Morgan straddles the same thin grey line. After that, the two pulse their way mutedly through Fats Domino’s What a Party; which sounds a lot more like the old folk song Shortnin’ Bread. Ironically, it’s the most pastoral track here – hearing Morgan toss off a handful of C&W guitar licks on his bass is a trip.
Poet – Pearl is a diptych. Morgan shifts around with a pensive incisiveness in the upper midrange, as he usually does throughout the set while Frisell plays a gently tremoloing lullaby of sorts. then the two follow the night’s most divergent courses, segueing into the lone Morgan composition here, a bittersweetly catchy jazz waltz where the bassist finally gets to carry the melody. The last song of the set is a spare, lowlit, increasingly desolate take of the Goldfinger theme that leaves no doubt that it’s about a spy. At the end, Frisell turns it into the old blues lament Baby Please Don’t Go.
Where does this rank in the Frisell pantheon? Maybe not on the towering, harrowing noir pinnacle with, say, 2007’s History, Mystery but it’s close. You’ll see this on a whole lot of best-of-2017 lists, not just here, at the end of the year.