Jakob Bro: Streams (ECM 2499)

2499 X

Jakob Bro
Streams

Jakob Bro guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded November 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 23, 2016

The title of Streams, guitarist Jakob Bro’s second leader date for ECM, could hardly be more appropriate to describe music that flows with the quiet charm of a forest creek, bubbling all the way from childhood to whatever here and now you happen to inhabit when encountering it.

“Opal” touchingly opens the album’s inner sanctum: a sacred gift for profane times. As the first of seven layers, it peels back just enough of life’s opacity to sense a shared humanity deeper within. Bro zooms in on filaments of memory, each a wire drawn from one biographical telephone pole to another. Bassist Thomas Morgan is so attuned to these electrical impulses that the possibility of a power outage seems a distant fantasy. Drummer Joey Baron marks their trail with care, ending with raindrops on a silo.

“Heroines” is one of Bro’s most patient confections. Morgan shuttles through the composer’s loom, soloing with restraint and focus, while the guitar folds itself in layers of cosmic radiation until the night itself begins to glow. This tune is further recast in a solo guitar version later in the set. Like a plant regressing to seed, it has all the world in its mouth before it opens to sing.

“PM Dream” is a free improvisation dedicated to Paul Motian. As in the music of its namesake, its heart beats somewhere between veiled ambience and solid ground. Morgan and Baron dot its continent with runes of memory, as they do in “Full Moon Europa,” which through its quiet substructure yields achingly dramatic elicitations from Bro. “Shell Pink” is another stunner, tracing its nautilus spiral into origins. Morgan is wonderous and sincere, enhancing that locomotive quality, inherent to all of Bro’s finest, along a parabola of ice to fire to ice.

Nowhere is geologic force so thoroughly studied as in “Sisimiut.” Where normally Bro is more interested in following a burning fuse than chronicling the explosion it foreshadows, this time he allows a little of that fire to spill over. But because destruction would be antithetical to the loving atmosphere he has so painstakingly created, we never encounter a bang, going out instead with a hush.

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan: Small Town (ECM 2525)

Small Town

Small Town

Bill Frisell guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Recorded March 2016 at Village Vanguard, New York
Engineers: James A. Farber and Paul Zinman
Mixing at Avatar Studios December 2016: James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher, Bill Frisell, and Thomas Morgan
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 26, 2017

In this intimately performed and recorded album, one of two documenting a historic performance at New York City’s Village Vanguard, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan show us what it means to treat jazz as a dialogue. While floating on the waves of their complementary artistry, we encounter one vessel after another of quiet majesty, each more attuned to the stars of navigation than the last.

Because Frisell and Morgan both played at the last session of Paul Motian, it’s only fitting they open with the drummer’s “It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago,” their meditation on which unravels in an 11-minute exhale. This experience alone was more than worth the price of admission for those fortunate enough to have been at the Vanguard that night, and is a perfect summation, if not also aconsummation, of the duo’s boundless imagination.

“Subconscious Lee” follows by paying homage to its composer, Lee Konitz, with an uplifting yet fiercely inward-focused reading. Frisell’s buoyancy here speaks of a musician well aware of the ethereal hand in which the tether of his creativity is gripped. “Song For Andrew No. 1” bears dedication to Andrew Cyrille. An earlier version appeared on The Declaration of Musical Independence, and now finds itself reborn in amorphous coherence. The guitar is nothing short of haunting, as it is in “Small Town,” wherein it sings with tumbleweed-kissed charm. Morgan is a wonderous complement, not so much supporting from the periphery as bringing out punctuation from within. Between those two Frisell originals, the folk tune “Wildwood Flower” wraps Morgan in joyful comfort. The bassist’s own “Pearl,” one of his earliest compositions, speaks with a certain innocence and basks in its own evolution. His heartfelt soloing thinks back, looks forward.

Fats Domino’s flirtatious “What A Party” and a 1960s-inspired nod to “Goldfinger” strings a daisy chain of allusions like a smile across azure sky, sending us on a mission not to destroy but to share the good news of music that awakens us to deepest sense of self.

Although the conversation begun here might seem to end with its companion album, Epistrophy, it will continue to yield new insights the more it’s heard in the world. For to the world it belongs, a sincere echo of its own creation, resonant and deserving of our undivided regard.

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan: Epistrophy (ECM 2626)

Epistrophy

Epistrophy

Bill Frisell guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, New York, March 2016
Engineers: James A. Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistant engineers: Own Mulholland and Jim Mattingly, SoundByte Productions Inc., New York
Mixing at Avatar Studios, New York, December 2016: James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher, Bill Frisell, and Thomas Morgan
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

Recorded live at The Village Vanguard in March 2016, Epistrophy continues where the conversation between guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan left off on Small Town. In the hands of this duo, a song like “All In Fun” assumes a double meaning. While the pair indeed are enjoying this musical experience, they bring an unforced profundity to the occasion. This tune in particular has what only can be described as a dark buoyancy, a feeling of bobbing along evening waters.

A nod to the folk song “Wildwood Flower” introduces “Save The Last Dance For Me,” which in this context takes on a magical realism. Liberated from their popular associations, tensions emerge in melodic symmetry. Played as lovingly as one could imagine, Paul Motian’s “Mumbo Jumbo” finds Frisell tastefully augmenting Morgan’s psychosomatic filter. The James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” also gets a heartfelt makeover, its machismo now a quieter drama. And Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” emerges from a series of still images, each further detailing the narrative. The title track and “Pannonica,” both from the Thelonioius Monk songbook, are the set’s core, each a reflection of the other: The former’s sprightly charm and linear paths pair beautifully with the latter’s eddying contemplations. The traditional “Red River Valley” is another key passage of synergy that seems tailor-made for these musicians. Like the Frank Sinatra hit “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” that closes, it activates what is tru- est and purest within them, and in us for being privy to their dialogue.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of DownBeat.)

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio: Sunrise (ECM 2096)

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio
Sunrise

Masabumi Kikuchi piano
Thomas Morgan double bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded September 2009 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Rick Kwan
Produced by Manfred Eicher

On paper, Tokyo-born pianist Masabumi Kikuchi may look the stranger, but put laser to disc and we’ve known him for decades. His prodigious talents were already clear in his teens, by which time he was sharing stages with Lionel Hampton and Sonny Rollins. He cut his first record—1963’s East & West—for Victor with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Charlie Mariano, the latter of course with formative ECM connections in work with Eberhard Weber. Kikuchi would get even closer to the label when he formed a trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian in the early 90s, releasing a string of albums under the moniker Tethered Moon for Winter & Winter. From there, Kikuchi continued his alliance with Motian on this ECM debut, adding 31-year-old bassist Thomas Morgan, for his most intuitive session yet. Having torn a page or two from the book of Paul Bley in the past, Kikuchi cites Motian as a major influence on his more recent endeavors, and indeed we feel in his artistry a pianistic equivalent of the late drummer, forever curious about what might be dancing just around the corner. That this would be Motian’s penultimate recording makes his contributions all the more poignant. His tsking filigree and palatable intimacy treads every rubato path like a millipede, predicting likeminded bursts of spontaneity from the keys.

Three tracks marked “Ballad” twine their way into the album’s skeleton, its veins pulsing with the nourishment of a freely improvised suite in ten parts. The lack of rehearsal is proportional to the music’s power of realization, rendering arbitrary such individual titles as “New Day” and “Short Stuff,” in spite of their economy of description. The listener will note that our idiosyncratic leader has a vocal presence, not so much singing like Jarrett as straining and growling against the tide that threatens to subsume him. As for Morgan, his bass creeps in at times like sounds from dreams upon waking. His gestures are listless and sincere, each a new ligament that leaves us stilled in golden light.

Kikuchi’s surname (菊地), if one wants to be literal about it, translates to “land of chrysanthemums.” It’s an appropriate analogy for quiet splendor of this all-too-ephemeral trio’s sound. It is similarly horizontal, training its microscopic lens wide and far within rather than trying to spike or send it skyward, until by the end it has thinned to comforting invisibility.

(To hear samples of Sunrise, click here.)