He’s been a steady presence in New York’s bustling jazz scene for nearly two decades, sports a discography dozens of discs deep, and has worked with numerous jazz heavyweights, from Lee Konitz to Paul Motian—but perhaps his work with guitarist Bill Frisell has brought Thomas Morgan the most attention. The two have played and recorded together on several well-received projects over the years, including Motian’s highly acclaimed final recording, 2011’s The Windmills of Your Mind, and Frisell’s Grammy-nominated When You Wish Upon a Star last year. The pair recently teamed up again to co-bill the just-released Small Town, an album of stunning guitar–bass duets recorded live at the Village Vanguard. Frisell describes Morgan’s stellar bass accompaniment best: “Thomas has this way of time-traveling, as if he sees ahead of the music and sorts it all out before he plays a note. He never plays anything that isn’t a response to what I play, anticipating me in the moment.”
A native of Hayward, California, Morgan began studying cello at age seven and later played bass guitar in his junior-high jazz band. When he switched to upright at 14, he discovered his bass journey-to-be, and eventually relocated to New York. There, he studied with Harvey Swartz while earning a degree from the Manhattan School of Music, and he even landed a lesson with Ray Brown. He’s been busy working ever since, but for all that Morgan has done since landing in the Big Apple, the 35-year-old is just getting started.
Bill Frisell remarked about the Vanguard, “The club’s sound and atmosphere will make things happen in a certain way.”
In terms of acoustics, there’s a very happy medium with just enough resonance and great clarity, so you can be in the music without any distraction from the sound of the room. The history is another thing. When I consider the people who have been on that stage, it feels like an awesome responsibility to play there. So I try to keep that toward the back of my mind most of the time, but they’re always an influence. I feel we’re all lucky we still have this place of past, present, and future music.
The two of you also have a shared history with Paul Motian. How did working in Paul’s band influence you musically?
I had heard Paul play at the Vanguard with Bill and Joe Lovano, and that was a big inspiration for me. I had also been playing there in other bands of Paul’s, including one with the pianist Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi. Poo talked a lot about “floating” in the music, and I’m not sure I can say exactly what that means, but I think I learned something about that from playing with Poo and Paul. You could forget about everything but the present moment, and play what the music suggested to you then. And as layered and indeterminate as the rhythms could get with Paul, they also felt very tactile and grounded and dancing. On this new album, Small Town, we play a tune of Paul’s called “It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago.”
You’ve said a fundamental detail for a bassist is to be aware of the placement of the beat. Can you expand on that?
There can be a nice feeling of tension when people put the beat in different places. That’s one thing that can help put life into music. With more tension in some dimensions of music, there can be less in others. To consider an extreme, a single pitch played in unison may be simple melodically, but with some richness in the rhythm and timbre it can still be made exciting. I also think it can help make music more dynamic if there’s a variety of relationships, with times when the beat is played closer together and times when it’s farther apart, as well as times when one person plays ahead, balanced with times when it’s someone else. There are probably many factors that make it feel better sometimes to pull back or other times to play on top of the beat. I like to try one thing and see if it feels right, and if not, try something else.
What were some of the important things you learned from studying with Ray Brown?
He emphasized left-hand pressure as a key to good sound. He encouraged me to put as much energy into accompanying as soloing. He explained that the motion of the right hand in pizzicato creates a natural tendency toward downward movement in walking lines, and he recommended balancing that with lines that move upward. I’ll never forget those lessons or the feeling of being in the same room with him. I wish he were still around.
Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Small Town [2017, ECM]; Bill Frisell, When You Wish Upon a Star [2016, Sony]
Bass Mid-20th-century German upright w/David Gage Realist LifeLine pickup
Rig Gallien-Krueger MB150E combo amp, Ampeg PF-115HF cabinet
Other Thomastik Superflexible Solo strings, Empress ParaEQ pedal