Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan - Epistrophy

Label: ECM Records

Personnel – Bill Frisell: guitar; Thomas Morgan: acoustic bass.


Epistrophy marks another beautiful encounter between guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. The follow up to Small Town boasts a formidable repertoire captured live at The Village Vanguard in March 2016, having Jerome Kern’s “All is Fun” opening it in a marvelously relaxed atmosphere. Frisell’s fascinating melodicism is knee-deep in rhythmic ideas, and Morgan, who lightly swings for a while, assures not only a superior foundation but also constructs it in an interactive way.

In addition to the aforementioned opener, it was the bassist who suggested The Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me”, an R&B hit from the early 60s that comes affiliated to “Wildwood Flower”, the folk song that serves it as an intro. On many occasions, Morgan communicates with Frisell by responding to his thoughtful guitar work. It’s not uncommon to hear exquisite guitar harmonics adorning the tunes and Billy Strayhorn’s sweet ballad “Lush Life” doesn’t let me lie. Another example is Monk’s “Pannonica”, which also does a great job in highlighting the instrumentalists’ soulful lyricism and sharp tonalities. It’s a joy to experience all these magnetic chords brimming with delicious extensions.

Since only top-notch musicians have the ability to make knotty passages sound simple, don’t be surprised if the rendition of Paul Motian’s whimsical “Mumbo Jumbo” surfaces natural and uncomplicated. The rubato approach invites us to freer, non-linear flights and the song is given a totally different perspective after the infusion of tasteful machinelike effects inflicted by Frisell’s sound-altering pedal.

If the duo performed “Goldfinger” in their previous outing, then they picked another James Bond theme to be part of this new work - “You Only Live Twice” is jazzified with an impressive atmospheric radiance, engrossing textures, and a dreamy sound that lingers. It’s one of the most beautiful moments on the album, which gains a tantalizing dimension with the confident gestures in the bass accompaniment.

The title track is another Monk classic whose telepathic and freewheeling interpretation includes melodic fragmentation, blues sparkle, and swinging flair. Frisell’s comping is smart and fun, and the original melody only shows up at the end in all its clarity.

In the aftermath of the traditional “Red River Valley”, an obvious folk ride, the album comes to an end in balladic gorgeousness with “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning”.

Owners of an immeasurable musicality, Frisell and Morgan embark on impeccable narrations of well-known gems, in a clear demonstration of their interactive dexterity. It’s mind-boggling how they put such a fresh spin in so many familiar songs, and all we want to do is play them over and over.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Mumbo Jumbo ► 04 - You Only Live Twice ► 06 - Epistrophy

Mary Halvorson - The Maid With The Flaxen Hair

Label: Tzadik, 2018

Personnel - Mary Halvorson: guitar; Bill Frisell: guitar.


Pursuing fashionable sounds, Mary Halvorson joins forces with her fellow guitarist Bill Frisell on The Maid With The Flaxen Hair, where both follow their natural stylistic impulses to interpret nine ballads associated with Johnny Smith. The idea came from saxophonist John Zorn, who opened the doors of his record label, Tzadik, to these guitar-centric duets with abundance of melody and experimentation.

Electronic seasoning confers a 21st-century presentation to timeless standards shaped with hints of folk and country, cases of the languid “Moonlight in Vermont”, which even swings a bit in its B section after a few slow dissonant bends; “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, sculpted lightly with an uncompromising posture; “The Nearness of You”, limned with rhythmic staccato attacks and introductory melodic divagations to obtain a marvelously fresh sound; and “Misty”, whose unadulterated voice leading goes along with buzzing and sliding rusty drones.

Wry sounds spread throughout and sometimes the sound of the guitarists blend in such a way that it’s hard to say who’s doing what, especially when Halvorson doesn’t use that descendant pitch shifting effect that characterizes her playing. The title track, a classical prelude by Claude Debussy, exhibits echoing phrases and follows a necessary synchronization with a contemplative country-jazz propensity.

The duo pushes the envelope of the American folk idiom on both “Scarlet Ribbons For Her Hair”, a popular song, and “Shenandoah”, dated to the early 19th century.

The fanciful orchestrators end this session with Smith’s 1954 hit “Walk, Don't Run”, in which swinging jazz segments cohabit with Bach's innuendos.

This is a fun, accessible disc from two openminded sound-shapers who bring interesting ideas to songs from the past.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Moonlight in Vermont ► 02 - The Maid With The Flaxen Hair ► 06 - The Nearness of You

Bill Frisell - Music Is

Label: Okeh, 2018

Personnel – Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loops, ukulele, bass, music boxes.


Venerated guitarist Bill Frisell, one of the most emblematic figures of Americana and folk-jazz, releases his long-awaited solo album, Music Is. The 16-track recording includes brand new compositions and old material irresistibly dressed with the sonic possibilities of our times. In addition to the electric and acoustic guitars, Frisell plays ukulele, electronic loops, bass, and music boxes, in a lush fusion of jazz, country, blues, and rock.

His genuine musicality is immediately foreboded on the Westerner “Pretty Stars”, a perspicacious country-folk examination cooked up with a descendent whole-step melodic interval that rings in most of the harmonic passages.

Far more adventurous is “Winslow Homer”, whose progressive posture bears audacious tones while the rhythm suggests a swinging flow that is never explicitly established. Frisell’s remarkable command of the guitar is extensible to every register and the tasteful effects aptly modernize this tune, which first appeared on the album Beautiful Dreams (Savoy Jazz) in 2010. 

Other classic pieces were added such as the relaxing “Ron Carter”, the neatly layered “Monica Jane”, the entrancingly acoustic “The Pioneers”, and two compositions from his early ECM records: “In Line”, designed with a durable ostinato, ruminative electronics, and assertive attacks within an electric setting; and a chiming rendition of “Rambler”, here suffused with loops and adaptable fresh melodies, and incorporating the ukulele into the final section. An alternate version of this tune, discarded of effects, closes out the record, with the guitarist showing an incredible capacity to articulate single-notes and chords in a polished incantation. 

The vulnerability and graciousness that dominate the record are shaken with a pair of short pieces: “Kentucky Derby”, a succinct statement whose stalwart rock chords feel ZZ Top-ish, and “Think About It”, where the guitarist combines strident bluesy chops with prolonged strapping chords.

Among the new songs, I would highlight “What Do You Want”, a nice, reflective exercise with drones underneath, and the darkly toned “Miss You”, a vehicle of uncertainty and a little sorrow.

Frisell is an inveterate drifter whose musicality leans toward introspection rather than spectacle. He knows how to sculpt a candid melody and make it the pounding heart of a song. Very personal, this is a novelty act of pure Frisellian atmospheres.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Winslow Homer ► 04 - What Do You Want ► 16 – Rambler (alternate version)

Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan - Small Town

Label/Year: ECM, 2017

Lineup – Bill Frisell: guitar; Thomas Morgan: bass.

The re-encounter of two contemporary jazz giants and virtuosos in the handling of their respective instruments spawned an ECM album recorded live at the gorgeous Village Vanguard and entitled Small Town. The gentlemen in question are guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, who have been working and recording together since 2011. Their sounds have interlocked outstandingly in Jakob Bro’s December Song and Time, Paul Motian’s The Windmills of Your Mind, and Frisell’s last work, I Wish Upon a Star.

The musical symbiosis that results from their interplay couldn’t have been more elucidative than in the opening tune, “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago”. This airy piece is one of the most beautiful compositions by the late drummer Paul Motian, who first recorded it in 1984 with a bass-less trio that comprised Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Morgan speaks a language of his own, whether connecting with Frisell’s voicings and harmonics or roaming freely and with no apparent destiny. The clarity, weightlessness, and transparency of this piece sent me into a levitating state where gravity wasn’t enough to pull me down. It gave me such a peace of mind as I kept embracing its idleness with all my strength. 

While the rendering of “Subconscious Lee” pays homage to its auteur, the saxophonist Lee Konitz, by combining happy bass hops with folkish infiltrating sounds and making the tune lose its original post-bop feel, “Song For Andrew No 1” is a recent piece composed by Frisell for drummer Andrew Cyrille. It was written for and featured in the drummer’s latest album The Declaration of Musical Independence. The duo version maintains the dreamy atmosphere, but finds even more room to breathe, conveying a lovely melancholy that could be compared to the Portuguese Fado.

From this point on, the versatile duo deliberately plunges into the folk genre, giving it their own touch and taking us to the vastness of American prairies and savannahs. While “Wildwood Flower” shows a typical narrative affiliated to its bluegrass roots, Fats Domino’s R&B “What a Party” carries something funny in its melody and rhythm, bringing to mind the farcical moves of Chaplin and Keaton in those classic silent movies.
Brimming with charisma, Frisell’s idyllic title track increases the sense of uncertainty through enthralling guitar voicings, differing from “Poet/Pearl”, the only composition by the duo, whose harmonic/melodic passages feel more familiar and some of them quite reminiscent of the popular “My One and Only Love”.

The record ends in a somewhat noirish mood with the furtive “Goldfinger”, a 007 theme that became popular in 1964 through the voice of Shirley Bassey.

This is a meritorious record by two high-flyers who already showed what they got. On every tune, one gets the impression of moving in an immense space and this music, at its purest artistic form, gets so easily under your skin.

        Grade  A-

        Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 – It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago ► 03 – Song For Andrew No 1 ► 05 – Small Town