Artist Feature

Thomas Morgan
By Ken Waxman

Thomas Morgan didn’t have much time for an interview when contacted by TNYCJR. Back in New York for a few days after a couple of months touring overseas with pianist Craig Taborn’s trio and Danish guitarist Jakob Bro’s multi-media quintet, within the week he was off across the Atlantic for most of a month to take the bass spot in two different working bands: drummer Jim Black’s trio and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko’s quartet. Constant touring is just part of life for Morgan, 33, who has been one of the city’s busiest bassist almost since arriving here from his native California 15 years ago. Featured on more than 70 CDs, Morgan honed his skill with as many groups as he can, including those led by veterans such as Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, drummer Paul Motian and guitarists Bill Frisell.

There’s a change of pace this month however. During his December 10-13 residency at Seeds, his group featuring long-time collaborator Dan Weiss on drums and Pete Rende on analog synthesizers will showcase Morgan’s own compositions. “I don't compose often,” Morgan admits. “Improvisation is enough of an outlet for me that I don't feel an urge to compose except occasionally after a long break from playing. But Ohad Talmor asked me to put together something and I’m writing music for that now. I have some ideas and plans that are informing the compositions but I hesitate to talk about them because I don't want them to define the music too much in my mind or anyone else’s.”

Modest to the extreme, Morgan constantly downplays his achievements. Meanwhile his career trajectory has been on the ascendance ever since he was 19, and touring as part of drummer Joey Baron’s band. This was only the year after he started studying at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) and only five years after he switched from cello to double bass.

Brought up in Hayward, Calif., near Oakland, he started playing cello at seven, and also played bass guitar in the junior high jazz band “just playing the notes on the page”, he recalls. Later after he began improvising along with tunes on the radio, while attending music camp he heard journeyman rock/jazz bassist Todd Sickafoose playing and was inspired to pick up the bass. With Sickafoose as his first teacher he found the transition from mid-sized to larger fiddle surprisingly easy. “The fingerings are different but the principles behind them are the same. The right hand technique is different from pizzicato on a cello, but I played without thinking about it too much and over time found different colors by experimenting. I was surprised, though, when I got blisters on my fingers. I called Todd and he said that was a rite of passage.” Soon he was transcribing and playing lines originally created by the likes of Milt Hinton, Charlie Haden, and Ray Brown. Much later he took lessons from Brown.

By that time he had already enrolled in MSM – he graduated in 2003 – following the recommendation of another West Coast student. “I went to visit him and play with some of the students, who really impressed me,” Morgan recalls. “I don’t think I considered the difficulty of finding work; I had been told that was easier for bassists.

“My first years of playing jazz were focused more narrowly on some of the greats of earlier generations”, he reveals. and to this end also began transcribing solos by Lester Young, Steve Swallow, Lee Konitz and Frisell and others. Eventually he would work in bands with the last two as well.

He elaborates: “In New York I discovered a wider world with influences coming from all directions. I wanted to have as many experiences as possible, so I played every session, gig, or recording I could during my school years. There was a lot to learn from the other musicians, most of whom knew much more about music than I did. Pretty much for the first time I was also exposed to 20th century classical music such as Berg's Wozzeck; electronic music like Squarepusher’s Big Loada; Indian classical music by Nikhil Banerjee; James Jamerson’s playing on Motown classics like “What’s Goin’ On”; Brazilian musicians like João Gilberto; and more. Dan Weiss introduced me to many of these. He’s a voluminous listener.” Weiss and Morgan were constant rhythm section partners from 2003 to 2011, playing about five jobs every week in different bands. Every other week they gigged at 55 Bar with saxophonist Dave Binney and pianists Jacob Sacks or Taborn. “I feel that rhythm is the beginning of everything in music,” declares Morgan “I tend toward a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach, and one of the most fundamental details to be aware of as a bassist is the placement of the beat.”

Baron, another drummer, gave Morgan his first taste of the big-time in a quartet that also featured guitarists Steve Cardenas and Adam Levy. “I was a sub for Tony Scherr,” Morgan explains, “but Joey told me more than once that it wasn’t that I was a second choice, that he was really happy with the band with me as well as with Tony.

“Joey taught me a lot about music and life”, he adds. “As accomplished as he is, he remains curious, humble and hardworking. And he’s more attentive to the most fundamental and probably most important things in music like feel and blend.”

Similar encouragement came from Kikuchi and Motion. Notes Morgan: “Masabumi, aka Poo, came to a gig I played at the Jazz Gallery and afterwards asked me to come to his apartment to record duo. We did that several times. Later he said that he didn't feel anything happened the first few times but then suddenly something clicked. I enjoyed it from the beginning and his way of improvising moment-to-moment was new and inspiring. In most bands, even when improvising without predetermined structure, you create a structure as you go. With Poo everything can change at any moment so it feels best not to think about creating some larger thing at all; that makes every moment feel new. After playing duo with Poo for a month or two we played trio with Michael Attias and later Todd Neufeld. Poo also introduced me to Paul Motian. We recorded a quartet album called Cross Currents with Terumasa Hino. Then I started playing in Paul’s bands: his Trio 2000 + 2, Octet + 1 or 2, and a one-time session with Petra Haden and Bill Frisell.”

Morgan, who will be doing a week at the Village Vanguard next March in duo with Bill Frisell, also regularly works with many younger European-based musicians, most of whom he hooked up with in New York. What he hasn’t done however yet is release a session under his own name. “I’d like to in the future, but I have no concrete plans right now”, he declares.

With his schedule crowded with sideman and recording work, Morgan doesn’t have enough time for composing or band leading. When he finally takes the plunge, it’s almost certain that the same unassuming excellence he brings to other projects will definitely be showcased.

Recommended Listening:

• Jim Black Trio – Actuality (Winter & Winter 2014)

• Dan Weiss – Fourteen (Pi 2014)

• Jacob Bro – December Song (Loveland Records 2013)

• Craig Taborn’s Trio – Chants (ECM 2013)

• Tomasz Stańko’s New York Quartet – Wislawa (ECM 2013)

• Masabumi Kikuchi Trio – Sunrise (ECM 2012)

—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2014