Jul 12 2017
I guess I just haven’t really seen the point of much of Bill Frisell‘s recent output. The renditions of classic rock tunes on 2014’s Guitar In the Space Age was, at best, mediocre, though at least it never quite sunk as low as the regrettable covers of Disney tunes on 2016’s When You Wish Upon A Star. 2013’s Big Sur had some enjoyable moments, but it was an album that Frisell had been making in different shades of the same color for many years counting.
Frisell’s newest, a live session with bassist Thomas Morgan, doesn’t have a point either. There’s no theme to guide Small Town. Random acts of nostalgia doesn’t lay waste to the songlist. And there also isn’t anything new. For a time, Frisell’s creative trajectory was marked by a series of new directions and reimagined sounds. From the spooky melodicism and odd instrumentation pairings of 1996’s Quartet to the border-transcending brilliance of 2003’s Intercontinentals to the country-jazz revelations of 1997’s Nashville to the dark Americana of 2009’s Disfarmer and the electronics heavy 2004 date Unspeakable, it was dizzying to keep up with Frisell’s next most new thing ever. Small Town isn’t part of that legacy. Small Town doesn’t have a point, but it sure does make one. Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, it’s a reminder of the casual magic and striking melodicism Frisell is able to conjure.
A rendition of the song “Small Town,” from the brooding Americana of Disfarmer, doesn’t give up the ghost on the original, but Frisell and Morgan release the melody from the weight of its darker tones and lets it bathe in sunlight and express some joy and happiness at times, too. The lines of open communication between Frisell and Morgan are remarkable. They create intricate weaves of melody and rhythm all within the same strands, indistinguishable at times between causation and effect, beginning and end. Case in point is the rendition of “Wildwood Flower.” Frisell made the song his own on the 2000 release Ghost Town, and he did it all by his lonesome. That recording showed Frisell’s true brilliance in a solo setting, with just his guitar and looping and effects. If Frisell’s newest album could be compared to any previous, it would be that one. Except in this instance, it’s Thomas Morgan’s bass subbing in for Frisell’s loops and effects… which, by extension, it could be said that Morgan is subbing in for a “dual Frisell,” which really is the crux of the sympatico relationship Morgan has with Frisell, and how marvelous this collaboration is.
This isn’t an album of fireworks, but that’s more in the context of measuring how high the voltage ranges on this recording and the strength of its explosion. But if fireworks is to be defined by its pretty lights, then maybe, yeah, Small Town has got ’em. The album starts out with some serious prettiness on a rendition of Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago.” It’s a song that Frisell played originally with Motian back in the day, and one that he’s revisited from time to time. It’s a twisting staircase of a tune, and Frisell and Morgan structure their rendition so there is no true up and down, but, instead, a sideways velocity that gives the impression of gathering altitude and fluttering descent. Significantly, it shows from the album’s opening notes that the duo are going to explore every damn melodic potential they can get their strings upon.
When they take the Fats Domino tune “What a Party” for a spin, it falls in line with other Frisell live performances. In fact, taking an old Motown or Sun Records song, flipping it on its head and obscuring its identity up until a mid-song grand reveal of the original melody is something of a tradition at a Frisell concert. And it’s a primary driver for the frustration with so many of these by-the-numbers covers albums that Frisell has been kicking out lately; something special has become the mundane. But, here, Frisell shows the happiness he can generate when re-shaping a classic tune. There’s nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary about this rendition, but it keeps itself tethered to the original while giving it enough space for the duo to also provide it a new voice.
The original composition “Poet/Pearl” switches between a sing-song voice and a contemplative reverie. The alternating tones and dispositions are ripe for the kind of playfulness Frisell can have with a song that’s got some bend to its infrastructure. On the other hand, a dull rendition of “Subconscious Lee” shows the risk of this duo sticking too close to the straight-and-narrow path. Conversely, the solemn “Song for Andrew No.1” shows the benefits to when the duo go wandering off that path.
The album ends with a rendition of the James Bond movie theme to “Goldfinger.” It’s okay, fine, whatever. The tune has some interesting melodic possibilities that might’ve been made more interesting if Frisell had brought trombonist Curtis Fowlkes or trumpeter Ron Miles into the studio, something heavy as a counterweight to Frisell’s and Morgan’s introspective noodling on the piece. But in terms of weak links on a fine album, the track supports the album’s overall success. And it is a success. It recaptures much of the past magic of Frisell’s body of work, and it accomplishes this by distilling things down to their barest, simplest elements, and watching as they resonate like mad. To make it, once again, just about the act of creativity.
No, there’s no point to Small Town and, for a change, that’s okay.
Your album personnel: Bill Frisell (guitar) and Thomas Morgan (double bass).
Released on ECM Records.
Available at: Amazon