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Like the duo’s acclaimed ECM release Small Town of 2017 – which The Guardian called “wistful and mesmerizing… tonally ingenious and haunting” – the new Epistrophy by guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan was recorded at New York City’s Village Vanguard. The album once again captures the rare empathy these two players achieve in this intimate environment. There are poetic takes on pieces from the duo’s beloved Americana songbook (“All in Fun,” “Red River Valley,” “Save the Last Dance for Me”), as well as an intense version of a composition by Paul Motian (“Mumbo Jumbo”), an artist whom both the guitarist and bassist knew well. Frisell and Morgan communicate the essence of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and the Frank Sinatra hit “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” so much so that their famous words seem to hang in the air even without a singer. At the center of the album is a pair of pieces by Thelonious Monk: the funky, angular “Epistrophy” and the ruminative ballad “Pannonica.” And as with “Goldfinger” on Small Town, Frisell and Morgan offer a glowing duo interpretation of a melody-rich John Barry title tune from a James Bond film – “You Only Live Twice.”

Frisell made his debut as a leader for ECM in 1983 with In Line, establishing one of the most distinctive sounds of any modern guitarist. His rich history with the label also includes multiple recordings by the iconic cooperative trio with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, culminating in Time and Time Again in 2007. Morgan, who also performed and recorded with Motian, has appeared on ECM as bassist of choice for Tomasz Stanko, Craig Taborn, Jakob Bro, David Virelles, Giovanni Guidi and Masabumi Kikuchi. One of the bonds Frisell and Morgan share is the connection with Motian and his music. Small Town included a tribute to Motian in the form of a searching, 11-minute interpretation of the late drummer’s composition “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago.” On Epistrophy, the duo features “Mumbo Jumbo,” a very different sort of Motian composition. “It’s one of Paul’s denser, more abstract pieces,” Frisell explains. “But as with all of Paul’s tunes, you play the melody of ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ and it puts you in this special world, where every note suggests all these possibilities. Thomas and I are right there together in this music. I had played ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ with Paul and Joe, but Thomas showed me things in the piece I didn’t realize were there.”

A discovery for many listeners will be the beauty of “You Only Live Twice” in a jazz context. “John Barry’s music was one of those things I took for granted as a kid in the ’60s,” Frisell recalls. “I didn’t necessarily take it seriously, even if I liked it when I heard it in a James Bond movie. But I have revelations about music I overlooked all the time, as I develop a deeper understanding about what music really is. If you strip away the pop-culture associations of a tune like ‘You Only Live Twice,’ as with ‘Goldfinger,’ you’re left with these beautiful chords and melodies. So, in the stripped-down context of the duo, we’re trying to get at the essence of this music. I’ve been pretty obsessive about the sources of pieces, trying to understand all the little details – like in the orchestrations of the John Barry tunes. Thomas is an ideal partner for that, as he has a way of getting at all the inner parts.”

Frisell has long been a prime exponent of the Americana repertoire in improvised music, a fascination he shares with Morgan. It was the bassist who suggested the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein composition “All in Fun” and the Drifters’ 1960 soul hit “Save the Last Dance for Me” (the latter of which includes an intro from the folk tune “Wildwood Flower,” a Frisell favorite). “Bill and I starting playing ‘All in Fun’ from our first set as a duo,” Morgan says. “It's originally from Very Warm for May, the same 1939 Broadway musical that included ‘All the Things You Are.’ The lyrics start by sounding callous, but then turn out to be heartfelt. The music matches the words, with a sharp ninth scale degree in the opening phrase that’s resolved to the major third by the end. So much warmth comes through Bill’s sound that he just seems perfect for the song. The Drifters’ record of ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ is a classic. It’s amazing that the song only uses the three most common chords, but the melody is full of suspensions that feel natural and melodic while they’re making the harmonies richer. Maybe that’s also why it feels good to accompany it in a simple way. That and the fact that Bill is right there keeping the rhythm going and playing the melody with the nuances of a singer.”
When it comes to Americana tunes – like the traditional folk song “Red River Valley,” also featured on Epistrophy – Frisell was initiated into their possibilities as jazz repertoire by Sonny Rollins. “Sonny was a beacon, playing a tune like ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’ – which he probably heard in a movie when he was a kid – with respect and affection,” the guitarist says. “One of the first jazz LPs I ever bought was his Way Out West, and it was like a light turning on for me. Later, I got into Gary Burton’s band with Larry Coryell, and they played Bob Dylan and country tunes. The musicians I’m drawn to most are those who don’t have some over-simplified hierarchy of musical worth where a folk song doesn’t have the same value as something more complicated. There can be a real depth to that music.”

Two other tracks on Epistrophy come from the realm of late-night, lonely-heart ballads: Billy Strayhorn’s iconic “Lush Life” and the signature Frank Sinatra number “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Frisell recalls the Sinatra song as something else that he didn’t appreciate fully when he was younger. “A record like that would’ve seemed as if it belonged to my parents’ generation, but then I’d read where Miles Davis dug Sinatra’s phrasing on that and it’s like, ‘Oh, I have to check this out,’ with the beauty of it finally revealing itself to me. But when it comes to a song like ‘Lush Life,’ that’s something I’ve tried to play for years and years – it can be intimidating, the legacy of it. It’s heavy, whether you hear the recording of Strayhorn singing it himself in a bar or you listen to the famous Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane record. Again, it has just been a process of trying to get to the essence of the song, to play what he really wrote.”

The heart of Epistrophy belongs to Thelonious Monk, with the title track and the ballad “Pannonica,” tunes Frisell calls “magical.” The cover painting – by the late Charles Cajori, part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists – is also titled Epistrophy. Cajori was a friend of Frisell’s parents, a hip, jazz-inspired figure who, whenever he visited Denver, would tell a wide-eyed Frisell about seeing the likes of Miles and Monk at the Vanguard. “He talked with me like an adult, even though I was just a little boy in Colorado,” the guitarist recalls. “What he said stuck with me. Decades later, I looked him up – he was teaching at the New York Studio School. I wrote him a letter telling him how much those conversations meant to me. We got together and became close in his later years, and we talked about him being friends with Morton Feldman and seeing Monk with Coltrane at the Five Spot, all that great stuff again. That’s when he told me about this painting he had done called Epistrophy. It means a lot to me that we could use it on the cover of this album.”

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