One of the gifts of Thomas Morgan, the unassuming 35-year-old bassist from Hayward, California, is to make every collaboration he undertakes sound like a perfect meeting of minds. No wonder Manfred Eicher, the founder of the ECM label, where intimate conversation between musicians is the dominant mode, likes him so much.
A week or so ago I heard Morgan with the trio of the Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, making a return visit to the highly sympathetic environment of the Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery in London. Of all the current piano trios, this one — completed by the Portuguese drummer João Lobo — is my favourite: not the most blatantly adventurous, by any means, but a collective marvel of touch, precision, empathy and lyricism, the threat of sentimentality in something like their wonderful version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” held at bay by Lobo’s unpredictable colouristic interventions (a repertoire of mysterious tapping, scraping and scratching).
Morgan also works well with guitarists, including Scott DuBois and Jakob Bro, and last year he appeared on Bill Frisell’s album of film themes, When You Wish Upon a Star. In March 2016 Frisell and Morgan played a week as a duo at the Village Vanguard, and a selection of recordings from that engagement makes up Small Town, the first ECM album on which Morgan has been given a leader’s credit, jointly with Frisell, who makes a return visit to the label with which he established his reputation in the 1980s.
The 30-year gap between their ages vanishes as they peel the layers off Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago”, respond to Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” with serpentine bebop lines, relish the deep lyricism of the country classic “Wildwood Flower”, conjure a spooky, spectral blues mode in Frisell’s “Small Town”, distil the spirit of Fats Domino’s “What a Party”, and amuse themselves and their audience by turning John Barry’s “Goldfinger” into something so slinkily and teasingly seductive that 007 might have been happy to slip it on to the hi-fi in his Chelsea apartment.
Perhaps the heart of the album is a 12-minute piece titled “Poet — Pearl”. Credited to both musicians, it is full of rich melody and satisfying harmonic movement, but it would be no surprise to discover that it was spontaneously improvised. Frisell’s singing tone takes the lead most of the way but Morgan moves to the forefront for a solo that demonstrates not just his spiritual connection to the late Charlie Haden but his lovely ability to make modesty an artistic virtue, with every note carefully considered and weighted for its contribution to the whole.
After the Guidi gig, Morgan told me in his diffident way that he has been composing pieces with an album of his own music in mind. After so much distinguished work in collaboration with or support of others, that’s something to look forward to. Meanwhile, Small Town is a place to visit.