REVIEWS: Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan plus Jason Moran Bandwagon at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan at Cheltenham 2018
Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan; Jason Moran Bandwagon
(Town Hall. Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 6 May 2018. Reviews by Jon Turney)

You might not expect a jazz gig to begin with Moon River, but in Bill Frisell’s hands it seems the most natural thing in the world. He can transform any melody with an arsenal of teasingly oblique paraphrases and sly asides. Several kinds of balance are maintained at once - inserting wry comments on a simple tune without undermining pleasure in the melody; flirting with cliche but never tipping into outright cheesiness.

As in his solo shows, this duo weaves a succession of tunes together as the fancy takes him. The difference is that in Thomas Morgan he has the perfect foil for his stream of invention - a man who matches his every move even as he makes it, moment to moment.

Their set-ups are complementary, too. The guitarist dips into a range of effects - a touch of looping, some overdriven crunch, his own patented spacey twang. Morgan has one of the most beautiful acoustic bass tones you ever heard, and immaculate note placement that is a continual delight.

Both sounded sumptuously virtuosic in Cheltenham’s spacious town hall - the perfect venue for the duo, according to Frisell. That was reported by MC Tony Dudley-Evans, though. There was no other talk. The two simply took the stage, and played, uninterrupted. It was a many-splendoured hour. There’s that bass sound; the way each tune yields to a free-ish guitar interlude that gradually gives way to the next song; the continual dreamy surprise of Frisell’s playing; the bassist’s unfailingly incisive response. There’s spot the tune fun, too, hearing players who are as likely to give an extended workout to Monk’s Epistrophy as to Goldfinger. But the real story here is the uncanny level of interaction. Frisell says in a JazzTimes piece just out: “There’s an actual physical sensation when I play with him. It almost feels like he’s connected to my hands.” And yes, it really sounds that close. Truly a wonder to hear live.


Jason Moran at Cheltenham 2018
Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Later in the afternoon, the same venue saw Jason Moran’s splendid Bandwagon display a similarly wide-ranging approach - if not to all music, anywhere, then to the full span of the jazz tradition. The trio, now nearly 20 years old, are a superb unit, Tarus Mateen on a neat electro-acoustic bass, and one of the world’s great drummers, Nasheet Waits, matching the leader’s ambition to play “a lot of music in a short space of time”. This was a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it, show, full of barnstorming piano and effervescent bass and drums. Like his great teacher, Jaki Byard, Moran can rehearse the entire history of jazz piano in a single piece, while never quite leaving modernism behind - a quality richly evidenced here mid-set on a long piece of Byard’s own. Lots of players do this partially, emphasising Monk’s debt to stride for example, but displaying the whole range, from ragtime and boogie to free jazz, without falling into pastiche is a rare achievement that Moran has made his own.

Shows at this level don’t really have highlights, they just go on scaling the peaks, but Waits’ drum solo still stood out, as did the blistering Monk encore. Like a lot of Cheltenham sets, strictly scheduled for 75 mins, the trio left us feeling they’d have played more if they could. That hardly mattered - there was already a feast of music to take in. Good job this set - like Frisell and Morgan - was recorded for Radio 3.

LINK: Peter Bacon's CD review of the CD Small Town by Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan

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